We have quantum computers—now Amazon and Harvard want a quantum internet

AWS is working on both quantum computers and a way to network them together.
harvard university campus
Clay Banks / Unsplash

Two big players in computing and research are trying to lay the groundwork for a future quantum internet.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is teaming up with Harvard University to test and develop strategies for networking together quantum technologies. Their partnership was announced today, and is a continuation of AWS’ goals to create a communications channel between the quantum computers that it is also working on in parallel. 

During the three-year research alliance, funding from Amazon will support research projects at Harvard that focus on quantum memory, integrated photonics, and quantum materials, and help upgrade infrastructure in Harvard’s Center for Nanoscale Systems.

“Quantum networking is a very specific area of research that requires different focus compared to quantum computing,” Simone Severini, director, quantum technologies at AWS said in a statement. To exhibit peculiar quantum qualities like superposition or entanglement, objects have to be very small or very cold. Quantum networks being tested today use photons, or particles of light, to communicate quantum states over long distances.

This is not the first time Amazon has sought an academic partner for its quantum ventures. Last October, AWS announced that it was taking up residency on the Caltech campus to establish the Amazon Web Service’s Center for Quantum Computing. At the Pasadena base in California, Amazon and Caltech are designing and building a “fault tolerant” quantum computer. 

Quantum computers are a promising approach for carrying out select tasks like optimizing materials design or searching in a database. This is due to unique features that qubits—the basic units of quantum memory—have, like superposition, or the ability to be zero and one at the same time, as well as entanglement. However, qubits are extremely sensitive and can be easily disrupted by noise from the environment, causing them to lose their special properties. The stability of these qubits, among other factors, set the limit for how big of a calculation can be done on a certain system. Currently, the AWS-Caltech team is working on small, error-corrected systems at the prototype level that are inching towards becoming more reliable machines. 

[Related: Recent AWS glitches illustrate the power, and fragility, of cloud computing]

AWS is using superconducting circuits with gates to make the processors for their quantum computers. But with this approach, a big challenge arises with the materials. Much of the noise and defects lie at the interfaces between the various substrates on the quantum processor.

“The error rates that we have right now at the physical hardware level are at the one percent level or the half percent level, every time you operate a gate,” and that’s way too big, says Oskar Painter, the director for quantum hardware at AWS. 

[Related: In photos: Journey to the center of a quantum computer]

To get better results, and reduce noise, the design and fabrication of these hardware materials need to be optimized, similar to how microchips were improved upon in the microelectronics field. 

Additionally, to improve its quantum computers, the team needs to figure out clever ways to configure the quantum gates. That’s where the concept of “error correction” comes in. “A gate is the fundamental unit that we use to perform logic, just like in a classical computer, where you have a transistor that is gonna implement some sort of “OR” or “AND” gate—you have a similar analog for a quantum computer,” Painter says. “Error correction involves taking the physical hardware, [and] programming it in such a way that you form logical qubits.” These would be made up of blocks of physical qubits that are programmed to perform logical operations. “These logical qubits are more protected from the noise because of redundancy and other special properties that you would design into them,” Painter notes.  

For Amazon, the hope is to be able to research and develop the support infrastructure for quantum computers alongside the computer itself. The latest partnership is a way to experiment with establishing a preliminary network that would be able to connect up the machines. In addition to partnering with Harvard on a quantum network, researchers at the AWS Center for Quantum Networking have been looking into ways to engineer better quantum memory technology to enable new hardware, software, and applications for quantum networks that “connect and amplify the capabilities of individual quantum processors.” 

Amazon and Harvard aren’t the only ones interested in a quantum internet. A consortium of institutions in and around Chicago unveiled a 124-mile quantum network earlier this summer for testing ways to send quantum information. The US government has also signaled its continued interest in advancing various technological developments in the field of quantum information sciences.