CEO Interview: Jeremy O’Brien, PsiQuantum

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By Nick Flaherty

“Quantum computing is the most profoundly world changing technology yet, and I believe we uniquely have a path to delivering that technology,” says Jeremy O’Brien, CEO and founder of PsiQuantum, the world’s best funded quantum startup who is speaking at the COP26 environmental conference this week.  

“That’s because we’ve figured out how to make a silicon transistor in an age of vacuum tubes and mechanical relays. It’s silicon that is the way forward, and that’s been my conviction for 25 years,” says O’Brien, a visiting professor at the University of Bristol. With Terry Rudolph, a professor at Imperial College, London, he set up the venture in California that has now raised $665m in venture funding for the company based around silicon photonics.

“We have a differentiated approach from the rest of the quantum computing world,” said O’Brien. “When we founded the company we said useful quantum computing will require error correction, therefore it needs a million qubits, therefore it needs a tier one semiconductor fab partner.”

This is different from the other quantum computer developers that are developing small systems with 5 to 10 qubits and working up from there using technologies such as trapped ions or superconducting junctions.

“We spent the first years and several hundred million dollars getting into Global Foundries (GF) [as a foundry partner], and so we are now producing quantum chips in the production line at GF next mobile phone and laptop chips,” said O’Brien. “This is about silicon photonics. It took me twenty years of looking at quantum computing, and the reason for silicon photonics is that it is compatible with the semiconductor industry. We use detectors that require cooling in the 4-10K regime which is an easily solvable problem compared to the millikelvin range. Then when you replace those sensors with semiconductor sensors you have ambient quantum computing. The sensors currently don’t have the efficiencies we need for quantum computing as there’s not a huge market but there are programmes around the world working on those sensors.”

“We are mass producing the single photon detectors at GF and these are performing well for several generations of million qubit computers.”

“We had a lonely existence for the first five or six years, and it was interesting to be at the White House last month where finally the tide has turned. There are a few holdouts looking at 100 to 1000 qubits, but the million qubit computer has really been the key distinction. Making those small systems is not something we have ever done.”

Universal Quantum in Brighton, UK, is also working on an error corrected quantum computer with a million qubits, also tapping into the semiconductor industry infrastructure. This is using trapped ions that levitate above a microwave silicon chip to provide electronic logic gates at 70K rather than 0K, combined into fully integrated, self-contained modules. It has seen a grant of £7.5m for the initial development with Rolls Royce to build quantum machine for aerospace modelling, as is PsiQuantum.

“We are working with customers now across the aerospace, automotive, financial, chemical, semiconductor industry and the work we are doing with them is getting them ready to fully use the systems,” said O’Brien.

Even with a million qubits, the error corrected quantum computer would deliver just a few hundred reliable qubits.

“With those million qubits it will be several hundred error corrected logical, and therefore useful qubits, and that work can be done now,” said O’Brien. “You can simulate a 40 qubit logical quantum computer on a supercomputer, and that’s the work we are doing with customers.”

That focus on the semiconductor industry is one reason for the successful funding round from investors such as BlackRock, the world’s largest investment fund, Atomico and M12, the venture fund of Microsoft which is also heavily involved in quantum computing, including its own quantum programming language, Q#.

“Our investors are sophisticated people that understand deep tech and the semiconductor industry and we showed them the path. We have the contract manufacturing and assembly partners and we also have that whole supply chain to avoid reinventing components. We also have a strong track record of doing what we said when we said,” said O’Brien.

The analogy is the early days of the semiconductor industry, with different types of technology from bipolar to CMOS all vying for dominance. But there is also a range of different software. “I call it going from hype to code. What are the algorithms, what size of quantum computer do you need for those algorithms. We are as much about ruling things in as ruling them out,” said O’Brien.

Next: Quantum computing at COP26

O’Brien is at the COP26 conference in Glasgow to highlight the role that quantum computing can have in tackling climate change, able to solve problems in logistics and materials that are not solvable with traditional machines, and with lower power consumption. “This can lead to development sin electric batteries, solar cells, catalysts for carbon capture, there’s a multitude of interactions,” he said.

“Quantum computing is the greenest computing,” he said. “Our first system will have modest energy consumption but it’s the possibilities of the computing. It’s mostly about chemistry and materials. My proposition is that you can’t do chemistry without a quantum computer, it’s like doing engineering without a conventional computer. And nowhere is that more apparent than in sustainability applications. Climate, energy, health care, this is such a powerful tool for solving some of the biggest challenges.”

“My determination is to have that impact as quickly as possible while capturing the value that we have created. There’s a trillion dollar market for this type of large scale error corrected quantum computer. There’s a real limited supply. We will build one, then the next one as quickly as possible,” he said.

Which leads to the business model. Amazon already has its Braket cloud quantum computing service, as does IBM, while Rigetti has built a quantum computer for the UK that will be accessed via the cloud.  

“We are looking at Quantum as a service (QaaS), on premises and partnering for solutions where the technical teams understand the specific problems and need expertise from outside, but we have some time to figure that out,” he said.

“We have never made public a delivery date as that fuels the hype [around quantum computers].  Going back a few years I was a little worried about that. By the middle of the decade we will have established feature complete, at specification chips for the system and will have deployed those in subsequent systems by the end of the decade.”       

The company is building its own operating system for the quantum computer and working with customers on simulating quantum algorithms on supercomputers. 

“We partner with people at the algorithm layer. I wouldn’t put too much weight on the software stack. All the bits need to work, so it’s critical, but it can be done.”

“I’m a visiting professor [at Bristol] and we have employed a bunch of people from there and we work with Bristol, we have a pretty close relationship and obviously together with Imperial College, that’s where a lot of the foundational work gets done,” he said.

“What worries me is the hype. I want realistic conversations. Picking up a newspaper it would be very easy to think that its already here, and that’s a bit dangerous. It needs an entire industry. It wasn’t just Intel that made the 4004, there was lots of public and private funding.”

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