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Waiting For Quantum Computers To Arrive, Software Engineers Get Creative

Quantum computers promise to be millions of times faster than today’s fastest supercomputers, potentially revolutionizing everything from medical research to the way people solve problems of climate change. The wait for these machines, though, has been long, despite the billions poured into them.

But the uncertainty and the dismal stock performance of publicly-listed quantum computer companies including Rigetti Computing Inc (RGTI.O) have not scared investors away. Some are turning to startups who are pivoting to using powerful chips to run quantum-inspired software on regular computers as they bide their time.

Lacking quantum computers that customers can use today to get an advantage over classical computers, these startups are developing a new breed of software inspired by algorithms used in quantum physics, a branch of science that studies the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Once too big for conventional computers, these algorithms are finally being put to work thanks to today’s powerful artificial intelligence chips, industry executives told Reuters.

QC Ware, a software startup that has raised more than $33 million and initially focused only on software that could run on quantum computers, said it needed to change tack and find a solution for clients today until the future quantum machines arrive.

So QC Ware CEO Matt Johnson said it turned to Nvidia Corp’s graphic processing units (GPU) to “figure out how can we get them something that is a big step change in performance … and build a bridge to quantum processing in the future.”

GPUs are microchips designed for processing video for gaming that have become so powerful that they now handle the bulk of AI computing. They are increasingly being used in quantum development as well.

This week, QC Ware is launching a software platform called Promethium, which is inspired by quantum computing and is designed to simulate chemical molecules on a regular computer using GPUs. The platform aims to investigate how molecules interact with things like proteins.

The software developed by QC Ware, called Promethium, has the potential to significantly reduce simulation time for molecules, according to Robert Parrish, the company’s head of quantum chemistry. The platform can cut simulation time from hours to minutes for molecules consisting of 100 atoms, and from months to hours for molecules with up to 2000 atoms. Prominent investors, including Eric Schmidt (formerly of Alphabet Inc.), T. Rowe Price, Samsung Ventures, and the venture arm of U.S. intelligence agencies In-Q-Tel, are backing quantum software startups, who are able to generate revenue from customers who are preparing for the arrival of quantum computing’s “iPhone” moment. However, these startups still face challenges in convincing some prospective clients, as the technology is still in its early stages of development. According to PitchBook, quantum software startups, such as SandBoxAQ, an Alphabet spinoff, have raised approximately $1 billion in the past 18 months.

SandBoxAQ CEO Jack Hidary said it was only 24 months ago that AI chips became powerful enough to simulate hundreds of thousands of chemical interactions simultaneously. It developed a quantum-inspired algorithm for biopharma simulation on Google’s AI chip called a Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) that generates revenue today. SandBoxAQ told Reuters in February it raised $500 million.

Jason Turner, who founded Entanglement Inc in 2017 to be a “quantum only lab,” became impatient with the slow pace of quantum hardware development. “It’s been ten years away for what, 40 years now, right?” he said. He finally relented, turning to Silicon Valley AI chip startup Groq to help him run a cybersecurity quantum-inspired algorithm. Ultimately, the software inspired by quantum physics won’t perform well on quantum computers without some changes, said William Hurley, boss of Austin-based quantum software startup Strangeworks.

Still, he said companies that start using them will have engineers “learning about quantum and the phenomenon and the process, which will better prepare them to use quantum computers at the point that they do so.” That moment could arrive suddenly, he said. Strangeworks, which also operates a cloud with over 60 quantum computers on it, raised $24 million last month from investors including IBM.