Welcome to FactBasedInsight’s “Quantum Software Outlook 2020: Part One.
Tune in again to this space on Wednesday next week for “Quantum Software Outlook 2020: Part Two.
In 2020 everyone will want to persuade you to join their quantum software camp. Not everyone will come away happy. Huddling round the community fire may be a good way to keep the chills of quantum winter at bay.
Everyone knows how lucrative controlling the software playing field became in the original Digital Revolution. Everyone knows that building a community into a mutually beneficial ecosystem is a key value driver. These insights remain true, but might the seductive similarity of the jargon blind us to important differences buried in the quantum software stack?
Increasingly we need to ask who is running a real service with real users, versus who is building an aspiration.
2019 saw an explosion in the number of quantum platforms, each typically offering: tutorial materials, a software development environment, a simulator for testing code and (in some cases) execution on real quantum hardware. Some have users, some don’t. Some aren’t even really launched yet. All want you to be part of their community.
Early existing proprietary offerings such as IBM Q, Rigetti QCS and D-Wave Leap have been joined by launch announcements from big tech players offering semi-hardware agnostic solutions, notably Microsoft Quantum Azure and Amazon Braket. IBM Q has already responded by adding access to an early trapped ion device from AQT. Atos may have spotted a niche for those needing a secure on-site classical simulator to avoid having to expose their ideas to the cloud.
Quantum startups have also entered the market, typically with hardware agnostic visions, such as QC Ware Forge (open beta) and Zapata Orqestra (private beta). More distinct again is Strangeworks with QuantumComputing.com (open beta), a vision focused on gluing the community together.
Other commercial players have early initiatives that probably prepare us for more to come: Xanadu Strawberry Fields prepares the community for its planned photonic processor; Alibaba QC-QDP registers their intent; European startup JoS Quantum is also set to enter this arena. China based Origin Quantum has initially offered a simulator based cloud service.
Google Cirq and the Google team’s activity across other open source initiatives has helped prepare us for a presumably much bigger cloud launch to come.
2019 saw the first quantum-on-quantum acquisition. Hardware-led Rigetti acquired software startup QxBranch, who are now operating as the Rigetti Applications Team. This reinforces the QCS ecosystem and enhances Rigetti’s client facing capability.
To date a key target user segment has been university and college establishments that want to introduce their researchers and graduates to this new world. This is set to expand as early business adopters also start seeking to build teams and experience. Others will focus on the more advanced tools and libraries to support the actual development of early applications.
Following Q2B 2019, analysts VentureBeat commented “The devil is in the details. How much are these cloud services for quantum going to cost? Amazon and Microsoft haven’t said. When exactly will they be available in preview or in beta?.”
Solutions, Applications & Libraries
Long ago the digital software marketplace saw a transition from custom solutions to packaged applications and then SaaS. 2019 found early quantum software startups wrestling with the parallel question of balancing vertical market insight with horizontal problem class expertise.
In the conventional software market, vertical industry expertise is often crucial in successfully selling to enterprise customers. In quantum software it’s set to be doubly vital, as often a core challenge will be working out which business processes or computing task hides a problem whose computational complexity is susceptible to solution via a quantum algorithm. However, in the quantum sector genuine horizontal problem class expertise is already a scarce resource and so a key differentiator. We can already see IBM carefully integrating these dimensions of their software strategy.
Quantum software startups are typically doing all of the above at once. However some differences of emphasis are emerging.
Some are focusing on key vertical opportunities by building focused tools and libraries. For example in drug discovery and materials design: 1QBit QEMIST, CQC EUMEN and Riverlane Anian. ProteinQure have an even more specific focus on protein therapeutics, also including conventional machine learning toolsets.
Other players are notable for early engagement with the Financial Services sector. JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Barclays are all part of the IBM Q Network. Standard Chartered Bank and Nomura Securities are among D-Wave users. Multiverse is doubly notable as a quantum software startup in southern Europe and one that focuses on the Financial Sector. Multiverse emphasise their expertise in both early quantum and advanced classical algorithms.
Others emphasise particular problem classes such as quantum machine learning: Xanadu (Penny Lane) and Rahko (Hyrax); or hard optimisation: Beit, also notable as a quantum software startup in central Europe.
Startups with expansive visions such as Zapata, QC Ware and Strangeworks are offering platforms that aim to span all of these areas and are happy to take a hardware agnostic view. Still there are differences of emphasis. Zapata talk first about industry aligned solutions, QC Ware first about problem class excellence. Strangeworks is notable for the emphasis it puts on enabling collaboration across the wider quantum community to drive innovation and discovery.
As an engaged potential end-user Airbus has itself seized the initiative. It has defined five key ‘flight physics’ problems (the vertical insight) and has launched the Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge to encourage the community (horizontal problem experts) to find ways quantum computers can help. Interestingly the respondents to the challenge have been evenly split across academic institutions and startups, illustrating the rapid commercial development of the field. An important aspect of the challenge is also the vehicle it provides to build awareness and focus thinking internally within Airbus.
Compilers, Errors & Control
The lower levels of the quantum software stack are even further removed from their conventional equivalents: optimising quantum compilers are significantly more conceptually daunting than conventional compilers; digital bits don’t require error correction; implementing optimal control over quantum hardware is a much more important and challenging task than it is for conventional hardware.
In 2019, early movers have been active in all of these proto-layers of the quantum software stack.
PsiQ have been notably active in hiring error correction talent and Q-Lion have debuted as an error correction focused startup.
The vital role of control specialists Quantum Benchmark and Q-CTRL has been acknowledged by hardware leaders such as Google and IBM.
CQC have emphasised the superior performance of their compiler t|ket⟩ over rival platform-native compilers. Quantum Benchmark point to the ability of the True-Q compiler to leverage results from their respected cycle benchmarking technology .
Q-CTRL point to the performance of their BOULDER OPAL control optimisation suite and see strong opportunities for future gains by combining the control and error correction layers . Intel’s launch of Horse Ridge gives us a definite model of where such firmware could one day reside.
It’s still not clear how the compilation, error correction and control layers will in the end interact or possibly merge. This field remains in active development. Opportunities to optimise compilation will vary widely between FTQC and NISQ applications.
Stay Tuned and watch this space next Wednesday for QuantumSoftwareOutlook 2020: Part Two from Dr. David Shaw.