Quantum Computing's Impact Could Come Sooner Than You Think

Exclusive: Quantum leader Rigetti Computing reveals its long-term plans to help carmakers and financial firms benefit from the potentially revolutionary machines.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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A close-up view of a Rigetti Computing quantum computer processor in a golden metal circular housing

Rigetti Computing makes its own quantum processing units, the brains of its quantum computers.

Rigetti Computing

In 2013, Rigetti Computing began its push to make quantum computers. That effort could bear serious fruit starting in 2023, the company said Friday.

That's because next year, the Berkeley, California-based company plans to deliver both its fourth-generation machine, called Ankaa, and an expanded model called Lyra. The company hopes those machines will usher in "quantum advantage," when the radically different machines mature into devices that actually deliver results out of the reach of conventional computers, said Rigetti founder and Chief Executive Chad Rigetti.

Quantum computers rely on the weird physics of ultrasmall elements like atoms and photons to perform calculations that are impractical on the conventional computer processors that power smartphones, laptops and data centers. Advocates hope quantum computers will lead to more powerful vehicle batteries, new drugs, more efficient package delivery, more effective artificial intelligence and other breakthroughs.

So far, quantum computers are very expensive research projects. Rigetti is among a large group scrambling to be the first to quantum advantage, though. That includes tech giants like IBM, Google, Baidu and Intel and specialists like Quantinuum, IonQ, PsiQuantum, Pasqal and Silicon Quantum Computing.

"This is the new space race," Rigetti said in an exclusive interview ahead of the company's first investor day.

For the event, the company is revealing more details about its full technology array, including manufacturing, hardware, the applications its computers will run and the cloud services to reach customers. "We're building the full rocket," Rigetti said.

Although Rigetti isn't a household name, it holds weight in this world. In February, Rigetti raised $262 million and became one of a small number of publicly traded quantum computing companies. Although the company has been clear its quantum computing business is a long-term plan, investors have become more skeptical. Its stock price has dropped by about three quarters since going public, hurt most recently when Rigetti announced the delay of a $4 million US government contract that would have accounted for much of the company's annual revenue of about $12 million to $13 million.

Quantum computers with more qubits

The company argues it's got the right approach for the long run, though. It starts in early 2023 with Ankaa, a processor that includes 84 qubits, the fundamental data processing element in a quantum computer. Four of those ganged together are the foundation for Lyra, a 336-qubit machine. The names are astronomical: Ankaa is a star, and Lyra is a constellation.

Rigetti doesn't promise quantum advantage from the 336 qubit machine, but it's the company's hope. "We believe it's absolutely within the realm of possibility," Rigetti said.

Having more qubits is crucial to more sophisticated algorithms needed for quantum advantage. Rigetti hopes customers in the finance, automotive and government sectors will be eager to pay for that quantum computing horsepower. Auto companies could research new battery technologies and optimize their complex manufacturing operations, and financial services companies are always looking for better ways to spot trends and make trading decisions, Rigetti said.

Rigetti plans to link its Ankaa modules into larger machines: a 1,000-qubit computer in 2025 and a 4,000-qubit model in 2027.

Rigetti isn't the only company trying to build a rocket, though. IBM has a 127-qubit quantum computer today, with plans for a 433-qubit model in 2023 and more than 4,000 qubits in 2025. Although qubit count is only one measure of a quantum computer's utility, it's an important factor.

"What Rigetti is doing in terms of qubits pales in comparison to IBM," said Moor Insights & Strategy analsyt Paul Smith-Goodson.

Rigetti's quantum computing deals

Along with those machines, Rigetti expects developments in manufacturing, including a 5,000-square-foot expansion of the company's Fremont, California, chip fabrication facility now underway, improvements in the error correction technology necessary to perform more than the most fleeting quantum computing calculations, and better software and services so customers can actually use its machines.

A chart of Rigetti Computing plans for quantum computing improvements through 2027

Rigetti Computing's plans for improvements to its broad suite of quantum computing technology.

Rigetti Computing

To reach its goals, Rigetti also announced four new deals at its investor event:

  • Graphics and AI chip giant Nvidia has begun a partnership to marry quantum and conventional computing to improve climate modeling
  • Microsoft's Azure cloud computing service will offer access to Rigetti machines
  • Bluefors will build new refrigerators to accommodate the 1,000- and 4,000-qubit systems, a key technology partnership since its machines must be cooled nearly to absolute zero
  • Keysight Technologies will offer its technology for reducing quantum computing error rates, a critical step in running more complex calculations

Qubits are easily perturbed, so coping with errors is critical to quantum computing progress. So is a better foundation less prone to errors. Quantum computer makers track that with a measurement called gate fidelity. Rigetti is at 95% to 97% fidelity today, but prototypes for its fourth-generation Ankaa-based systems have shown 99%, Rigetti said.

In the eyes of analyst Smith-Goodson, quantum computing will become useful eventually, but there's plenty of uncertainty about how and when we'll get there.

"Everybody is working toward a million qubit machine," he said. "We're not sure which technology is really going to be the one that is going to actually make it."