If you've been paying attention to quantum computing, you'll have seen familiar names -- IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel and Amazon -- trying to bring about this revolution. Now a name from computing's distant past wants a turn.
Honeywell, which once sold massive mainframes but withdrew from the business decades ago, said Tuesday that it expects to improve the performance of its quantum computers by a factor of 10 every year for each of the next five years -- meaning they'd be 100,000 times faster in 2025. That would blow past IBM, which has a more modest goal of doubling its performance annually.
"We are at the cusp of releasing the world's most powerful quantum computer," said Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, adding that the machine will have double the capability of IBM's 53-qubit quantum computer.
It's still unclear how useful Honeywell's new machines will be, but companies and countries are pouring billions of dollars into quantum computing research and development. They're betting the quantum computing revolution will pay off by opening up new abilities in chemistry, shipping, materials design, finance, artificial intelligence and more. Whoever can first build and use practical quantum computers stands to reap major rewards with new products, more competitive services, plumper profits and perhaps a more powerful military.
And Honeywell clearly hopes to be in the vanguard. It's got "perhaps the most ambitious product roadmap of any firm in this industry," said James Sanders, a 451 Research analyst briefed on Honeywell's plans.
Honeywell detailed its efforts in a research paper describing its "robust, fully-connected and programmable trapped-ion quantum computer."
Honeywell reawakens computing ambitions
You might know Honeywell because of your home thermostat, though the company sold that business off years ago. Today, it's in aerospace, oil and gas, building management, military technology, chemistry and materials science.
The company was also a notable player in the early days of computing. Back in the 1960s, it was one of the BUNCH companies -- Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data Corporation and Honeywell -- that challenged IBM in the mainframe market. IBM largely won that battle, and Honeywell exited the business.
Times have changed. Mainframes faded as the computing industry moved on to smaller, cheaper servers, personal computers and smartphones. And now quantum computers are coming to the fore.
Quantum computers are finicky machines that typically have to be chilled to extremely cold temperatures to avoid unwanted perturbation of their fundamental structure for storing and processing data, the qubit. Nobody expects them to replace traditional computers. Instead, they'll prove useful in tackling computations that are out of reach of ordinary computers.
They'll do that, proponents argue, by taking advantage of the weird realities of quantum physics, the rules that govern atomic-scale phenomena. One of those is entanglement, which links the states of multiple qubits so quantum computers can in effect evaluate many possible solutions to a problem at the same time.
Honeywell still has a lot to prove with its quantum computers, which like rival machines are exotic, highly customized machines that almost nobody knows how to program. The quantum computing payoff is likely years away, and it's a big enough challenge that skeptics remain. "I don't believe they will ever become practical," said Michel Dyakonov, a physicist at the Université Montpellier in France, after Google announced a quantum computing performance milestone called quantum supremacy in 2019.
Ion trap quantum computer
Honeywell began exploring quantum computing a decade ago and launched a program in earnest five years ago. The company's seven computers, developed by a team of about 100 people outside Boulder, Colorado, use an approach called trapped ion qubits. With it, lasers manipulate individual electrically charged ytterbium atoms housed in an H-shaped device within an airless chamber. The interactions of these ytterbium ion qubits form the basis for computation.
Trapped ion qubits give Honeywell's machines the ability to more easily add qubits for greater computing capability, something that's not simple with Google and IBM designs. It also improves computing power with better connections among qubits and with calculations that can last longer before qubits get perturbed and have to be reset.
Those attributes -- qubit count, connectedness and longevity -- factor into a quantum computing performance measurement created by IBM called quantum volume. IBM's top quantum volume score is 32, a score reached with a 28-qubit machine.
Honeywell is at a quantum volume of 16 with a 4-qubit machine, a score that demonstrates that different hardware choices offer different ways to achieve a particular quantum volume. But Honeywell expects to reach quantum volume of 64 within three months, Uttley said, and to increase the number by a factor of 10 each year for 10 years.
IBM, which has had a high-profile quantum computing effort for years, said it's happy Honeywell adopted its measurement for quantum computing performance. Its rival is showing "exciting new progress," IBM said in a statement.
Another big difference over rivals' quantum computers is that Honeywell's can change a calculation midstream with a feature called midcircuit measurement. It's like a computer "if then" decision point that can send a calculation down different paths in different situations. That opens up new possibilities for quantum algorithms.
It's a "unique differentiator" among quantum computing makers, said Futurum Research analyst Daniel Newman.
A quantum computing startup called IonQ also is using the trapped ion approach. Google and IBM, along with another startup called Rigetti Computing, are using superconducting qubits, small electrical circuits chilled to such a low temperature that they conduct electricity with no resistance at all. There are other quantum computing designs, too, including Microsoft's topological qubits, which are designed to improve how long qubits can last before a computation falters.
Honeywell detailed its approach in a paper published at the Arxiv online repository, a move befitting the somewhat academic culture that prevails in quantum computing today. (As an example, one of the big moments to announce quantum computing news is this week's American Physical Society's March meeting.)
The Honeywell machines will be available over Microsoft's Azure quantum computing cloud service, but the company plans to offer access directly, too. One company it's working with is JPMorgan Chase, though Honeywell wouldn't detail financial terms of its relationship.
The bank didn't comment on its Honeywell deal, an expansion of quantum computing that builds on another with IBM, but said it expects to use quantum computers for optimizing financial portfolios and detecting fraud. So far the work remains at the research stage. "As researchers and scientists, we have an obligation to explore new, promising technologies when they become available," said Marco Pistoia, managing director of JPMorgan Chase's Future Lab for Applied Research and Engineering and a former IBM quantum computer expert.
Honeywell expects to benefit from using quantum computers in its own business, too. Quantum computers will help the company to simulate molecules, useful for chemistry and materials science; to perform optimization calculations useful in the oil and gas industry; and to perform AI work useful in aerospace, Uttley said.