By Pedro Lopes, QuEra Computing
National laboratories have long been at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation, playing a crucial role in accelerating progress. Their infrastructure, established during the Second World War and continuously evolving since, has enabled significant discoveries in areas such as nuclear energy, weather forecasting (including climate change), and materials development for battery and carbon capture technologies, addressing pressing challenges faced by humanity.
From their inception, national labs have recognized the importance of high-performance computing. They were early adopters of supercomputing technologies that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, positioning them as leaders in complex modeling, simulation, and data analysis. These capabilities have been instrumental in facilitating major discoveries, as well as in the training of sophisticated contemporary artificial intelligence models.
This visionary mindset also drove national labs to develop a keen interest in the recent emergence of quantum computers. Although still in relative infancy, quantum computing promises exponential advancements in computational power, leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics. Whether for simulating novel materials, improving machine learning capabilities, or predicting extreme weather events, quantum computing capabilities can contribute to existing research directions and open up new ones.
Access to diverse quantum computing platforms is paramount from a national lab perspective. Quantum computers today come in various technologies—superconducting qubits, trapped ions, photonics, and neutral atoms—each with distinct advantages and potential use cases. Today, no single platform is best suited for all problems. Providing access to a range of computers and modalities ensures that researchers have the best tools to meet their diverse research needs and fosters resilience in this rapidly evolving field.
A crucial question is how to best provide such access: whether on-premises or via the cloud. On-premises quantum computers offer advantages such as full control over scheduling and availability, reduced reliance on external connectivity, data protection for sensitive applications, tighter integration with existing classical computing resources, and opportunities for custom modifications. They also facilitate in-house development of the expertise required to operate and maintain these cutting-edge machines. Remote access, on the other hand, offers flexibility, reduces initial capital outlays, outsources the management and maintenance activities to cloud providers, and protects against rapid obsolescence of on-premises systems. The optimal choice depends on the specific circumstances of each Lab.
Beyond hardware access, national labs can benefit from direct access to the scientists who develop and maintain quantum computers. Such scientists, often employed by quantum computing vendors, provide invaluable expertise and assistance in managing quantum infrastructure. These experts possess in-depth knowledge of their machines and stay at the forefront of quantum computing research. They can help decide which problems are a good fit for today’s quantum computers and assist in the optimal mapping of the problem to the capabilities of the hardware. In the case of neutral-atom computers, some of which can uniquely operate in both analog computing mode and digital gate-based mode, this expertise becomes even more critical due to the added complexity and flexibility.
At QuEra, we actively foster relationships with U.S. National Labs, exemplifying the value of close partnerships in designing optimal quantum computing services tailored to their needs. Through a collaborative effort, we have provided one such lab with access to our cutting-edge neutral atom quantum computer. The primary objective of this particular collaboration was to empower the lab’s quantum team to become proficient in our quantum computing technology, enabling them to subsequently allocate computing resources and technical support to their own user community. Our partnership revolves around a joint project, offering the lab’s team hands-on experience and direct technical guidance from our experts in a real-life setting, simulating their future interactions with the scientists they will serve. The project was also designed to strategically use quantum dynamics simulations – the key strength of QuEra’s Aquila – to address a problem that simultaneously impacts the chemistry, materials, and high-energy physics communities, arguably the main audiences that the US national labs cater to. Through further community-building activities, including training and brainstorming sessions with the lab’s larger user base, we help set the lab’s quantum program for success. Through this design, our collaboration with the lab’s developers has rapidly expanded, with interest from scientists growing five-fold in just a few months, underscoring the relevance and appeal of our resources.
We have addressed specific research inquiries through ongoing interaction and collaboration, tailored our system to meet the lab’s requirements, and collectively overcame challenges. The feedback and insights gained from this collaboration have been invaluable in refining our technology and shaping our future development plans, and of course have also been very valuable to the lab itself. This symbiotic relationship enhances the lab’s research capabilities and advances our understanding and progress in neutral-atom quantum computing. Such real-world experiences highlight the immense potential of collaborative endeavors.
We made our cloud resources available to a different national lab in a separate project. That lab now has access to superconducting, annealing, trapped ions, and now neutral-atom computers. It allows them to benchmark different modalities and make recommendations to their users on what the most appropriate resource is for any given problem. QuEra also benefited from this interaction, providing us a better understanding of the scheduling, reporting, and billing requirements of a sophisticated user.
A collaborative approach, where vendors closely work with national labs to understand their needs, provide appropriate hardware, and offer ongoing expert support, brings significant benefits. It creates a virtuous cycle where lab feedback informs future hardware and software developments, and lab discoveries push the boundaries of what is possible with quantum computers. Such cooperation not only accelerates progress within each national lab but also contributes to the collective quantum computing capabilities of the broader scientific community. It ensures that these powerful tools are not limited to a select few but are accessible to a diverse array of researchers working on society’s most pressing scientific challenges.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that the connection between quantum computing and traditional supercomputing resources is being beyond our borders. Several organizations in the European Union chose to strategically pursue high-performance computing developments since the early 2010s. White papers identifying trends and needs for heterogeneous computing environments, including quantum nodes alongside CPUs and GPUs, have been published. This planning has manifested in recent moves by leading European high-performance computing centers, both public and private, to acquire quantum computing nodes. Notably, the Jülich Supercomputing Center in Germany has made significant efforts in this regard, and the EuroHPC program has designated six different countries to purchase six different quantum computers for shared exploration.
In conclusion, national laboratories play a vital role in driving scientific and technological progress, and quantum computers hold immense potential to accelerate this progress. By providing these institutions with access to diverse quantum computing platforms and expert guidance, hardware developers not only contribute to advancing the labs’ missions but also enhance their own ability to offer quality services that address society’s challenges through quantum computing. The pursuit of such relationships is a global trend, and national labs that wish to continue to be beacons of innovation and research leadership must continue to invest in quantum computing integration.
October 22, 2023