Intel reveals quantum computing breakthrough at CES 2018

9 Jan 2018

Intel says it is making fast progress in quantum computing. Image: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation

Intel has ‘quantum supremacy’ in its sights.

In his opening keynote at CES 2018, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich unveiled a 49-qubit quantum chip, which he described as a major breakthrough in quantum computing.

Krzanich heralded the chip – dubbed Tangle Lake – as Intel’s next step to “quantum supremacy”.

‘This incredible technology adds to the breadth of AI solutions that Intel is developing’

He predicted that quantum computing will solve problems that today might take our best supercomputers months or years to resolve, such as drug development, financial modelling and climate forecasting.

Krzanich added that while quantum computing has the potential to solve problems conventional computers can’t handle, the field is still nascent.

Spin qubits and supercomputing dominance

The chip is named after a chain of lakes in Alaska, a nod to the extreme cold temperatures and the entangled state that quantum bits – or qubits– require to function.

Krzanich said that Tangle Lake represents progress toward Intel’s goal of developing of a complete quantum computing system, from architecture to algorithms to control electronics. Achieving a 49-qubit test chip is an important milestone because it will allow researchers to assess and improve error-correction techniques and simulate computational problems.

He said that the need to scale to greater numbers of working qubits is why Intel, in addition to investing in superconducting qubits, is also researching spin qubits in silicon.

Spin qubits could have a scaling advantage because they are much smaller than superconducting qubits. They resemble a single electron transistor, which is similar in many ways to conventional transistors, and they have the potential to be manufactured with comparable processes. In fact, Intel has already invented a spin qubit fabrication flow on its 300mm process technology.

Krzanich also showcased Intel’s research into neuromorphic computing – a new computing paradigm inspired by how the brain works, which could unlock exponential gains in performance and power efficiency for the future of artificial intelligence (AI).

The era of the neuromorphic chip begins

Intel Labs has developed a neuromorphic research chip, codenamed ‘Loihi’, which includes digital circuits that mimic the brain’s basic operation. Loihi combines training and inference on a single chip with the goal of making machine learning more power-efficient.

Krzanich noted the significance of this research and the progress Intel is making.

“This has been a major research effort by Intel and today we have a fully functioning neuromorphic research chip,” he said. “This incredible technology adds to the breadth of AI solutions that Intel is developing.”

Neuromorphic chips could ultimately be used anywhere real-world data needs to be processed in evolving real-time environments. For example, these chips could enable smarter security cameras and smart-city infrastructure designed for real-time communication with autonomous vehicles.

In the first half of this year, Intel plans to share the Loihi test chip with leading university and research institutions while applying it to more complex datasets and problems.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years