A Boston startup says it’s made a quantum leap in computing

Boston startup QuEra Computing says it has developed the world’s most powerful quantum computers. The company has raised $17 million to market the new systems, developed by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It plans to make them available to scientists and companies looking to tackle problems far too complex for even the most brawny standard supercomputers.

“Quantum computing is a new way of thinking about computing,” said Alexander Keesling, CEO of QuEra, a Harvard-trained physicist who helped develop the technology. “It’s not just the next generation of existing systems.”

Unlike today’s “classic” computers that rely on bits of digital data stored in electronic circuits, QuEra’s quantum computer uses lasers to control the state of individual atoms, called “qubits.” In a classical computer, a data bit can be in only one of two states, zero or one. In a quantum computer, a qubit can be equal to zero and one at the same time. As a result, a qubit-based computer can process vastly greater amounts of data than any classical computer.

But checking individual qubits is difficult. Machines built in the world’s best lab managed only a few qubits at a time, resulting in quantum machines that are no better at solving problems than their classical counterparts.

Now that is starting to change. Earlier this week, IBM Corp. that it has built a quantum computer with a capacity of 127 qubits. That would make it much more capable than the 60-qubit machine announced by Chinese scientists in September. But QuEra says it beat them both, and by a large margin. In July, the company’s scientists published a paper in the journal Nature describing a quantum computer with a capacity of 256 qubits.

“This is huge,” said Chirag Dekate, an analyst at the technical research firm Gartner. “This is easily one of the largest quantum computers I know of.”

Now QuEra is bringing the technology to market, with financial backing from Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, as well as Day One Ventures and Frontiers Capital. QuEra will not sell its hardware, but will instead sell access to its quantum machines as a cloud-based service.

Keesling said a 256-qubit machine could be used to simulate systems governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, such as the subatomic particles in protein molecules. Such molecules are the building blocks of drugs and vaccines, and so quantum computers could become essential tools for the pharmaceutical industry.

But this is just the low hanging fruit. If a quantum machine can be built with a much larger number of qubits, say 1,000 or more, then quantum computers will become a practical tool to tackle a range of hugely complex problems. Such computers could, for example, generate much more accurate weather forecasts. Investment firms such as JP Morgan Chase have already begun exploring how quantum machines could enable more accurate modeling of financial markets, in order to achieve better returns on investments.

On the scary side, a large enough quantum computer will likely be able to crack today’s digital encryption systems. That could be a crippling blow to privacy. At the very least, it would force the development of new “quantum-proof” security systems.

In any case, we’ll probably find out. Keesling predicted that QuEra will build a 1,000-qubit machine within two years. Meanwhile, both IBM and search giant Google have said they plan to build millions of qubit machines sometime in the next decade.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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