A Dilemma of the Quantum Kind

A Dilemma of the Quantum Kind

Merck funding SeeQC’s innovative ‘system-on-a-chip’ quantum design could prove to be a landmark moment for our Quantum future

When it comes to the global quantum computing architecture landscape, there is one dilemma oft reported: is it indeed the next major wave of technological innovation set to transform the global technological environment, or merely an overhyped candle in the wind? The approach being adopted by German pharma giants Merck, could indeed, in this regard, prove to be the clear-eyed roadmap for other firms to follow as well.

Quantum Something

By undertaking a cautious but informed’ approach, Merck is setting up an internal group of experts to partner with US-based quantum start-up SeeQC to monitor developments in the field while keeping business use-cases in mind. According to Philipp Harbach, theoretical chemist at the head of Merck’s In Silico Research Group, a major part of the challenge involves keeping expectations reasonable in spite of the soaring global hype: “We are not evangelists of quantum computers. But we are also not sceptics. We are just realistic. If you talk to academics, they tell you there is no commercial value. And if you talk to our management, they tell you in 3 years they want a product out of it. So, there are two worlds colliding that are not very compatible. I think that’s typical for every hype cycle.”

Merck’s In Silico Research group, through the fundamental nature of its business, has been working for over a century building molecular ‘quantum’ models for applications to the natural sciences. Part of the challenge they are currently involved in regards the use of evolving technologies such as AI and data analytics to make experimental work in the natural sciences more streamlined and less time-consuming. However, as VentureBeat reports, “those models are always limited and imperfect because they are being calculated on non-quantum platforms that can’t fully mimic the complexity of interactions.”

While building a fully functional fault-tolerant quantum machine that can operate at sufficient cost and scale would allow Merck to make scientific breakthroughs at generational efficiencies, the process is set to be a slow and arduous one. Harbach adds: “The quantum computer will be another augmentation to a classical computer. It won’t be a replacement, but an augmentation which will tackle some of these problems in a way that we cannot imagine. Hopefully, it will speed them up in a way that the efficacy of the methods we are employing will be boosted.”

Seeing Quantum?

Essentially working as an interest group monitoring the quantum environment, Merck’s venture capital funding arm, M Ventures announced, in 2020, a $5 million investment in New York-based SeeQC, a start-up billed as the “Digital Quantum Computing” company. Harbach states: “We thought that it might be good to have partners in the hardware part and in the software part. SeeQC will partner with us within Merck to really work on problems basically as a hardware partner.”

To this end, SeeQC has been developing a hybrid approach to quantum computing by combining classical computing architectures with quantum technologies using a novel system-on-a-chip design. According to VentureBeat: “This technology was originally developed at Hypres, a semiconductor electronics developer which spun out SeeQClast year. The M Ventures funding for SeeQCfollowed a previous $6.8 million seed round. SeeQC raised a subsequent round of $22 million last September in a round led by EQT Ventures.”

According to John Levy, CEO at SeeQC, this technology allows the addressing of several fundamental issues facing quantum machines today — especially its instability in delivering the consistent high-performance computing standards needed today. The instability, of course, stems from the fact that quantum performance units, called qubits, require near-freezing temperatures for processing. This therefore makes scaling rather difficult, given the massive complexities in managing the heating issues therein involved.

Image: System-on-a-chip; Source: SeeQC

To handle this, VentureBeat reports, classic microchips are being placed over qubit arrays to stabilise cryogenic environments whilst maintaining speed and reducing latency. According to VentureBeat, “(SeeQC) uses a single-flux quantum technology that it has developed and that replaces the microwave pulses being used in other quantum systems. As a result, the company says its platform enables quantum computing at about 1/400 of the cost of current systems in development.”

Apart from this, it is important also to note the kind of device that SeeQC plans on building, because it’s not going to be a general all-purpose computer either. Instead, plans are to build specific application-based solutions for different consumers given its highly flexible chip development technologies. The idea behind customising chips is to allow application developers to create different specific algorithms based on needs.

Whilst this indeed looks promising (as most quantum technologies do), the proof, as they say, will lie in the pudding — or in this case, a fully functional hybrid quantum environment that can handle high performance models consistently, at scale and at the right temperatures.

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