It’s oft said, but bears repeating: The money in the ‘49er Gold Rush was made by the suppliers much more than the miners. Enduring companies were built by selling picks, shovels and blue jeans. 

The story plays out again today. Behind each breakthrough in quantum computing qubit-counts is a large collection of laboratory test equipment. Signal generators, arbitrary waveform generators, digitizers, oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers and network analyzers are vital as quantum players coax ions, photons and superconducting qubits into calculating problems.

Quantum computer R&D ramping up

Thoughts along this line piqued our interest as we took part in the quantum computing portions of Keysight Technologies’ online Keysight World Innovate conference, held recently. Keysight, and competitors such as Anritsu and Tektronix, are busy coming up with tooling to scale the quantum cliffs.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this technology and governments all around the world are investing in the research and development required to scale this up,” Shohini Ghose, Ph.D., a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University, said in a keynote at Keysight World. 

“It’s a very exciting time, [but] it’s not quite clear where this technology will go,” she said.

Ghose’s emphasis on large-scale investment is borne out by the numbers. Estimates of government and private efforts to spur quantum science and technology, according to Quantum Resources and Careers (QURECA), point to current worldwide investments reaching almost $30 billion, with the overall global quantum technology market projected to reach $42.4 billion by 2027.

Quantum R&D labs likely make up a small portion of the overall test and measurement market, which is expected to increase modestly from $27.7 billion in 2021 to $33.3 billion in 2026. But the market for testing tools used in quantum R&D labs will grow if the promise of quantum computing is to be successfully tapped. 

Sprung from the birthplace of Silicon Valley

A central part of Keysight’s test bed for development of quantum computers, sensors and network equipment is its Quantum Control System (QCS), which was introduced in June. QCS components support direct digital conversion of signals and include low-noise distributed clocking. A Keysight manager explained how that works and why it matters in testing.

“QCS leverages FPGA timing and synchronizations for multichannel and multichassis operations,” said Giampaolo Tardioli, vice president for Keysight’s Communications Solutions Group, speaking at the event. 

Such traits are important as the quantum community looks to scale up its qubit counts. Important as well is software support, added Tardioli, who pointed to Keysight’s work to support QCS with Python APIs.

Keysight’s credentials for the quantum quest could not feature more vaunted lineage, as the company grew out of the original Hewlett-Packard test equipment that sprung from the Palo Alto, California, garage of Messrs. Hewlett and Packard in the 1930s. The garage is regularly cited as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.

Keysight has pursued quantum lab tech both organically (almost 100 scientists and engineers were involved in the creation of QCS) and through acquisition. Its quantum road map includes acquisition of modular measurement startup Signadyne in 2016, qubit control software maker Labber in 2020 and error diagnostics specialist Quantum Benchmark in 2021.

Quantum error correction solvers

Although they still lag behind classical computers by most measures, quantum computers have made steady and perhaps increasing progress in recent years. 

But many challenges lie ahead before quantum computers can be integrated into business operations, according to Patrick Moorhead, CEO and chief analyst, Moor Insights and Strategy, who spoke at Keysight World. 

“The biggest hurdle to jump over is error correction,” Moorhead said, noting that a classic computer can do trillions of calculations before it gets an error, but such errors in quantum systems today tend to occur after about 100 to 200 calculations. 

Much of Keysight’s quantum test focus these days is on understanding the impact of errors and how current techniques can remove or elude them. It’s an important part of understanding just where the industry is on the road to quantum adoption.

For his part, Moorhead said his analyst firm is expecting a major breakthrough in error correction sometime this year. Even then, there is more prospective work ahead. 

“If error correction research is progressing at the rate we believe, it could take three to five years until it is usable in systems,” he said.

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