Amazon Joins Tech’s Great Quantum Computing Race

The everything store has an everything cloud. Amazon Web Services offers more than 160 services from disk storage to satellite control antennas. On Monday, the company said it would widen its cloud menu to include access to quantum computers—Amazon’s first big commitment to a technology rivals IBM and Google say will transform computers’ impact on businesses and society.

Quantum computers are an embryonic technology designed to unleash more powerful ways to crunch data by encoding it into the odd physics of subatomic particles. IBM, Google, and several startups have built prototype quantum processors and signed up companies such as Volkswagen and JP Morgan to explore how the new devices might help tasks such as electric vehicle battery development or modeling financial markets.

Amazon is now offering to induct companies into the mysteries of quantum computing, too. Starting this month, customers will be able to access quantum hardware from three startups via Amazon’s cloud platform, which has nearly half of the cloud computing market. AWS installed equipment at the facilities of startups D-Wave Systems, IonQ, and Rigetti Computing to link those companies’ prototype quantum processors into its vast network of conventional hardware. The quantum computing service is called Braket, after a notation used in quantum physics, and also includes quantum programming and simulation tools.

No one has yet built a quantum computer ready to do practical work, or that appears to be close. Bill Vass, a vice president of technology at AWS, says companies should start experimenting with the technology anyway to prepare for the quantum era. “We talked to hundreds of customers that want to start to learn to use quantum computers,” he says. Amazon is also starting a consulting group to help customers identify how quantum computing could help their businesses.

Amazon trails rivals in its move into quantum computing. Vass says that the quantum project has been in development for about four years. The quantum research projects of Microsoft, IBM, and Google are more than twice that old. IBM and Google have built some of the most advanced prototype quantum processors, while Microsoft is betting on a much less mature technology it claims will ultimately prove to be more practical.

Amazon is not the first to launch a quantum cloud service either. IBM has offered access to its own quantum hardware over the internet since 2016 and Google says it will soon do the same. Microsoft, whose cloud computing business ranks second behind Amazon, became the first company to announce it would offer access to multiple forms of quantum hardware last month.

Since they have no quantum hardware of their own, Amazon and Microsoft have little option but to play matchmaker for technology from outsiders. Both claim this model fits better with how the tech industry works, because customers need flexibility. “Having multiple machines and technologies available is much better than forcing someone down a single choice for hardware or software,” Vass of Amazon says—in the same way that the company offers cloud customers many different processor and software choices. Amazon says it has tested programs that involve two different quantum processors and conventional computers, all working together.

Amazon’s hardware partners represent three different approaches to quantum processors, which are built from devices called qubits that encode data into quantum mechanical effects. Bay Area startup Rigetti uses superconducting circuits, the same approach as IBM and Google; Canada’s D-Wave uses similar technology to make processors limited to certain operations; and IonQ, a spinout from the University of Maryland, uses individual ions controlled with lasers.

Longer term, Amazon’s menu of quantum offerings could include quantum processors of its own. Simone Severini, the company’s director of quantum computing and a professor at University College London, says Amazon is working on quantum hardware, but declined to provide details. The company said Monday it is establishing a quantum computing research center at Caltech where Amazon researchers will collaborate with academics on both software and hardware.

Amazon’s quantum computing debut sees the company take on not only some tricky physics, but also the mind-bending challenge of balancing the technology’s long-term potential with the unknowns about how soon it will be capable of useful work.

Interest in quantum computing has grown to a point that Amazon needs to start welcoming quantum-curious businesses to avoid being left out as the technology evolves, says Peter Rutten, a research director at IDC. But Amazon placing quantum computers alongside its more established cloud services, and offering a consulting group, could also raise expectations that the technology will mature more quickly than it ultimately does. “There’s a risk that users are going to be disappointed,” adds Rutten.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More