Intel promises $50M for quantum computing research

Intel is funding quantum computing research in the Netherlands, hoping to make fully functional quantum computers a reality in a dozen years or so

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A fully functioning quantum computer is still twelve years off, according to Intel, but the company is already plowing research funding into the field.

On Thursday, Intel promised to fund QuTech, a research unit at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, to the tune of US$50 million over 10 years, and to provide additional staff and equipment to support its work.

QuTech hopes the partnership will allow it to combine its theoretical work on quantum computing with Intel's manufacturing expertise to produce quantum computing devices on a larger scale.

Quantum computers are composed of qubits that can take on multiple values simultaneously, unlike the bits stored and processed in traditional computers, which are either 0s or 1s. This multiplicity of values makes quantum computing, at least in theory, highly useful for parallel computing problems such as financial analysis, molecular modelling or decryption.

There are a number of practical problems to be overcome before such computers become more than lab curiosities, including building them at scale, and dealing with cooling. Today's quantum computing systems contain only a few qubits, but systems will have to have thousands of qubits to be really useful. And cooling them takes more than a big fan or a cold aisle in the data center: To reveal the quantum behavior of the materials they are made from, qubits need to be cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero -- to around -270C.

Intel chose to work with QuTech because of its long experience in the field, and particularly for its work on the interconnects used to link parts of quantum computers together, CEO Brian Krzanich said in an open letter Thursday.

The company is not the only one taking a commercial interest in quantum computing research. IBM is investing too.

In April, IBM researchers said they had designed a square qubit that would allow many qubits to be built on a single chip, and had also developed two ways to detect quantum errors, first steps on the way to the construction of error-correcting quantum systems.

But not everyone is optimistic about the effects quantum computing will have on society. Its ability to perform many calculations in parallel could allow it to crack in a matter of seconds encryption systems that would otherwise resist years of attack from supercomputers. It's a vision some are referring to as the cryptocalypse, or the total end of trust on the Internet, and it has prompted the NSA, for one, to prepare a move to "quantum-resistant algorithms in the not-too-distant future."

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