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Rigetti quantum computer
The Amazon Braket quantum computing service will take advantage of hardware devices developed by Rigetti Computing and other companies. (Rigetti Photo)

Amazon Web Services is leaping into quantum computing with both feet — or maybe more than both feet, in keeping with the weird world of quantum physics.

AWS’ quantum initiative, announced today in conjunction with its re:Invent cloud computing conference in Las Vegas, includes the unveiling of a cloud-based quantum computing service called Amazon Braket, as well as the creation of the AWS Center for Quantum Computing and the Amazon Quantum Solutions Lab.

But wait … there’s more: The Braket computing platform, which is analogous to the Microsoft Azure Quantum platform announced last month, brings together three different hardware approaches to quantum calculation.

One approach is represented by Maryland-based IonQ’s trapped-ion technology, which is also being used for Azure Quantum. The second approach relies on California-based Rigetti’s superconducting chips, and the third approach takes advantage of Burnaby, B.C.-based D-Wave Systems’ quantum annealing devices.

The broad sweep of AWS’ quantum initiative demonstrates that one of the titans of cloud computing is covering its bets as quantum information science matures..

Charlie Bell, senior vice president of utility computing services at AWS, stressed the initiative’s experimental nature.

“With quantum engineering starting to make more meaningful progress, customers are asking for ways to experiment with quantum computers and explore the technology’s potential,” Bell said in a news release. “We believe that quantum computing will be a cloud-first technology, and that the cloud will be the main way customers access the hardware.”

In contrast to the binary, one-or-zero nature of classical computer hardware, quantum computing devices take advantage of atomic-scale phenomena in which bits of quantum information — known as qubits — can represent multiple values, at least until the results of a computation are read out.

Researchers have been working through the challenges of quantum computing for decades, but the past year has been marked by quickening progress. In February, Microsoft created its own network of quantum developers and researchers. In September, D-Wave laid out its plan for the next generation of its cloud-based Leap quantum computing service. And in October, Google Cloud researchers said they achieved “quantum supremacy” for a particular class of computational tasks. (IBM, which has its own quantum initiative, immediately questioned the claim.)

The federal government is boosting the field as well, through a $1.2 billion National Quantum Initiative that was authorized last December.

Quantum computing is expected to far outdo classical computing on specific types of tasks, mostly having to do with sifting through multitudes of possibilities to find optimal solutions. That advantage could be valuable in fields ranging from cryptography to molecular chemistry to machine learning to aerospace.

One of Amazon’s partners in the initiative is the Boeing Co. “Boeing believes in the potential for quantum computing to help solve some of the aerospace industry’s toughest challenges, from fundamental materials science research, to complex system optimization, to secure communications,” said Charles Toups, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for disruptive computing and networks.

Toups said “we look forward to collaborating with AWS as Boeing accelerates its own developments in quantum technologies.”

Amazon Braket, which takes its name from a notation system used for equations in quantum mechanics, will serve as the main vehicle for the quantum experiments enabled by AWS. It’s in preview mode as of today, and is due to be rolled out broadly to AWS customers next year.

Braket takes advantage of a new development toolkit as well as existing tools such as Jupyter notebooks to let customers get started on quantum algorithms, with the choice of executing either low-level quantum circuits or fully managed hybrid quantum-classical algorithms.

The service offers a range of quantum simulators as well as a variety of quantum hardware devices. The starting selection includes IonQ, Rigetti and D-Wave, but AWS says more choices will be added in the months to come.

Customers will be able to get training and advice from the Amazon Quantum Solutions Lab, which brings together experts from AWS and a set of consulting and technology partners. Members of the Amazon Partner Network include 1QBit, Rahko, Rigetti, QCWare, QSimulate, Xanadu and Zapata. Several of those companies — including Vancouver, B.C.-based 1QBit as well as Rahko, QCWare and Zapata — are part of the Microsoft Quantum Network as well.

The AWS Center for Quantum Computing, based next to the Caltech campus, will focus on developing more advanced hardware and applications.

“We will be researching technology that might one day enable quantum computers to be mass-produced, while also working to identify applications that are best solved on quantum computers,” Jeff Barr, chief evangelist for AWS, said in a blog post. “Both of these are long-term challenges, and I look forward to watching the progress over the next decade or two.”

The ins and outs of Amazon’s Braket quantum computing service, and its similarity to Microsoft’s Azure Quantum service, suggest a common approach to future infrastructure, in which the world’s biggest cloud companies serve as gateways to their own classical computer servers as well as to specialized quantum hardware built by corporate partners. That approach could well foster a diverse set of quantum computer companies — at least until Microsoft, Google, IBM and the other heavyweights of the computer industry develop their own hardware, or buy it.

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