In the race to build commercially useful quantum computers, Honeywell just took a big leap forward.
The industrial conglomerate unveiled on Thursday what it is calling, by one measure, at least, the “world’s highest performing quantum computer,” a type of experimental computer that could be a successor to today’s supercomputers.
The company’s boast rests on the computer achieving a high score on what’s known as quantum volume, an invented metric that helps characterize the performance of a quantum computer.
Honeywell’s new machine has a quantum volume of 64, making it “twice as powerful as the next alternative in the industry,” the company said. Earlier in the year, IBM, one of Honeywell’s major competitors in the quantum computing race, declared it had built a quantum computer with a quantum volume of 32.
“It absolutely is the highest performing quantum computer in the world,” said Tony Uttley, Honeywell’s quantum leader, in an interview with Fortune. Uttley said his team was able to continue working toward the goal, despite the unforeseen disruptions of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“When everything started shutting down and we started saying at home, I thought we were gonna be in a tough spot,” Uttley said. Nevertheless, the team was able to pull through thanks to a combination of remote work and reduced staffing at its two labs, one just outside of Boulder, and another in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
IBM proposed quantum volume as an alternative way to assess quantum machines’ computing power in 2017. It was an attempt to shift the industry away from clunkier measures.
Before quantum volume, companies often liked to tout the number of so-called qubits—or quantum bits, the quantum equivalent of classical bits—their machines possessed, regardless of quality. The quantum volume figure instead factors in a number of other important attributes, including the stability of a given system, its proneness to error, and the ease of programming.
Unlike classical binary digits—the “1” and “0,” which form the basis of traditional computing—qubits can exist in multiple states (a property called superposition) and can become tied together (entanglement). These properties, unique to particle-scale physics, give quantum computers access to potentially greater processing power.
Some companies have set their sights on different goals. In the fall, Googleclaimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy,” a major milestone in which a quantum computer vastly outperforms a traditional machine on a mostly useless calculation. IBM later disputed the claim, arguing that the Google team underestimated IBM’s Summit supercomputer.