If you’ve ever played basketball or baseball or soccer or any other sport, you’ve probably met a naturally talented player. A person who, almost the first time he or she tries, can do the motions of the sport with beautiful fluidity and gracefulness. Less gifted players never perform the motions quite right, no matter how many times they try. It seems to me that in quantum computing, Intel is a naturally gifted player. It’s hard to find a company that is better suited to building a scalable QC. And yet, Intel has never played the QC game. Intel… build it, and they will come.
Intel is the largest semiconductor chip maker in the world. Even though its main headquarters are located in Santa Clara, California (part of Silicon Valley, near San Francisco), it has hundreds of facilities worldwide. Some statistics that convey Intel’s gargantuan size: (statistics taken from Wikipedia and The New York Times)
- Intel supplies about 80 percent of the PC microprocessor chips worldwide.
- It has about 100,000 employees, including about 10,000 software engineers
- Its revenue in 2010 was $43.6 billion
- Its market capitalization on Feb. 2011 was $122 billion.
- Intel announced record profits in the last quarter of 2010, and predicted even better performance in the first quarter of 2011.
A company as big and successful as Intel can certainly afford to spend at least a small amount of money on QC research. But they never have, as far as I know. And I think that they should, because quantum computing fits well with their interests. Indeed,
- Some of the QC hardware realizations that are being tried use Silicon, and Silicon is an Intel specialty.
- As explained in my previous blog post, most experts believe that Mooore’s Law will hit a brick wall in the next 5 to 10 years. Since its inception, Intel has followed Moore’s Law, so a disruption in that trend should certainly concern them.
- QCs can do a special type of parallel processing, and Intel is very involved in parallel computing hardware and software.
- Quantum computing software might fit Intel’s recent efforts to produce a wider range of products, including computer software (they have 10,000 software engineers!)
Intel is to a large extent responsible for the rapid growth of the computer industry in the US. Just think how much could be achieved in quantum computing if this well-disciplined behemoth were to get involved in quantum computing. Also, if Intel were to undertake even a small effort in quantum computing, this would legitimize the field in the eyes of others, and spur other companies to join the QC fray.
Intel already spends a large amount of money on research. According to their website, they currently fund research groups throughout the world working in the following areas. I like lists, so let me cut and paste their impressive list (Ouch, 27 research areas, and no quantum computing):
- Cloud Computing
- Cultural Anthropology
- New User Experiences
- Parallel Computing
- Personal Energy Systems
- Personal Healthcare
- Sensing and Perception
- User Experience
- User Interface
- Visual Computing
They also like to fund university research (for example, this year, they announced that they will be contributing $100 million over the next five years to university research projects.) But alas, I’m not aware of any university research project in quantum computing being funded by Intel.
A search of Intel’s website for the keywords “quantum computing” or “quantum computer” yielded very few hits, so if Intel is currently funding any QC research projects, either in-house or at a university, it’s a very minor, poorly publicized effort. At least Microsoft partially funds Station Q at UCSB, a research group dedicated to studying (topological) quantum computing, and Microsoft proudly trumpets this fact in their website.
The Intel STS (Science Talent Search), which was known for its first 57 years of existence as the Westinghouse STS, has been sponsored by Intel since 1998. The STS is a competition between US high school seniors, based on their scientific research projects. In the last two years, at least one student per year with a project in quantum computing has been an STS finalist. I wish Intel would pay attention to the fact that these young scientists find quantum computing interesting. Sometimes the untrammeled curiosity of the young can home-in on scientific questions of great importance.
- Intel STS 2011 – One of the 40 finalists was Yushi Wang (from Sunset High School, in Oregon), with a project entitled: “Applications of Quantum Ternary Algorithms and Oracles”
(first to tenth prizes of Intel STS 2011 will be announced on March 15, 2011)
- Intel STS 2010 – Ninth Place: Yale Wang Fan, (from Catlin Gabel School, in Oregon) with a project entitled: “Adiabatic Quantum Algorithms for Boolean Satisfiability”
Journalist in the popular press often describe quantum mechanics as being a theory that is of interest only to a few experts, and those experts are the only ones that barely understand it, a theory that is incredibly difficult to apply and will only find application in the very distant future. Those journalist seem to want to paint Quantum Mechanics and String Theory with the same brush. But I’m sure that the legions of well-trained scientists and engineers at Intel recognize how silly it is to put Quantum Mechanics and String Theory in the same category.
There is no experimental confirmation of String Theory yet, and, besides, String Theory describes super-high-energy phenomena that can only be observed using a billion dollar machine.
Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, has been confirmed countless times, and it predicts some lab measurements with unprecedented accuracy. It is the main tool used to explain most of 20th century physics (including solid state physics, statistical mechanics, spectroscopy, laser physics, particle physics, nuclear physics, etc.). In fact, quantum mechanics explains the effects that underpin semiconductor chips, Intel’s bread and butter.
For Intel to refuse to get involved in the next step in the extraordinarily successful career of that theory that we call quantum mechanics, when they owe so much to quantum mechanics already, would be a very illogical move on their part.