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Intel upgrades ambitions with quantum computers with new control chip



Intel's Horse Ridge 2 chip, packaged in this metal housing, is designed to simplify communication between a quantum processor and conventional computers.

Intel’s Horse Ridge 2 chip, packaged in this metal housing, is designed to simplify communication between a quantum processor and conventional computers.

Intel

Intel unveiled its Horse Ridge 2 processor on Thursday to control quantum computers, an important milestone in making the potentially revolutionary machines practical.

Horse Ridge 2 is not a quantum processor per se, but is designed to solve the challenges of communicating with future quantum processors with thousands or more qubits. The processor is the second generation of a family that debuted in 2019.

The processor comes when Intel tries to catch up with rivals with computers like IBM and Google. Chipmaker hopes it will eventually skip competition with processors that contain far more qubits, the computing element that is fundamental to quantum computers, than competitors have. Horse Ridge 2 moves Intel closer to this goal by making Intel’s high qubit count more usable.

Making quantum computers practical is the key to transforming expensive machines into technology that can tackle problems out of the reach of conventional computers. Proponents expect that the machines will contribute to breakthroughs in materials science, economics and logistics when they become more accessible and affordable.

Qubits can store data in multiple states simultaneously, as opposed to zeros or 1s for classical computers, and can perform new types of computing through a quantum physics phenomenon called complexity that connects multiple qubits.

Many of today’s quantum computers house their quantum processors in an extraordinarily cold chamber just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. The cold is necessary to shield finicky qubits from outside influences. Relatively hot conventional computers communicate with qubits via cables that go through colder and colder stages of cooling.

Intel’s Horse Ridge chips, named after the coldest place in Oregon, are designed to move the control process closer to the quantum chips without disrupting their business. Doing so will reduce the number of shiny communication cables that connect the encoded qubits to the rougher outside world. These cables are acceptable for today’s quantum computers with dozens of qubits. They become impractical, but with qubit numbers expected to reach thousands, then probably millions.

“If you have the best quantum processor in the world, but no way to control it, you can do nothing about it,” said Jim Clarke, head of Intel’s quantum computing hardware program. Clarke led an online tour of Intel’s quantum work at the Oregon lab where it developed and announced Horse Ridge 2.

Quantum computer brains

Quantum computing spotlight shines mostly on quantum processors and qubits they house. Among those working with various types of quantum processors are Google, IBM, Rigetti Computing, IonQ, Honeywell, Microsoft, Intel and PsiQuantum. If quantum processors are the brain of the operation, Horse Ridge 2 is more like the spinal cord that provides an important connection to the outside world.

The key to Horse Ridge is the ability to run at very cold temperatures, so it can be located as close as possible to the quantum processor, Clarke said. Horse Ridge 2 adds an opportunity to retrieve data from qubits after they have been processed, not just tell them what to do.

Clarke also spied on automated testing technology that Intel expects will speed up quantum computing. It cuts the assessment time for silicon wafers from quantum processors from weeks to 4 or 5 hours.

Intel hopes that the spin qubit chips, which can be made on the same processes that they use for conventional computer chips, will give it a victory behind today’s quantum computing processors. Spin qubits use individual electrons as qubits, manipulate them with magnetic fields and store data through a quantum mechanical state of the electron called spin.

“A spin qubit is a million times smaller than a superconducting qubit,” Clarke said. “We realize we do not have the same number of qubit as others, but we feel that this is a technology that scales better.”


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