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A quantum leap forward: University of Chicago gets $150 million from Google, IBM to build world’s most powerful supercomputer

The University of Chicago campus Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The University of Chicago’s computing ambitions took a quantum leap forward Sunday with a commitment of $150 million in funding from IBM and Google to build the world’s most powerful computer.

The partnership with the University of Tokyo, announced at the G7 summit in Japan, will seek to create the first quantum supercomputer, building up the technology over the next decade to a processing power that would dwarf any computer in current use.

The funding will also support research and training needed to operate the supercomputer.

“It would solve problems that current supercomputers can’t solve,” said Fred Chong, a computer science professor at University of Chicago. “Things like developing new materials or fertilizers or drug discovery, certain kinds of computations that are just too complex for the machines that we have now.”

The agreement to develop the quantum computer technology was engineered by former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, now serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, who was part of the signing ceremony Sunday with top leaders from IBM, Google and the two universities.

IBM will invest $100 million over 10 years to develop the supercomputer, while Google is committing up to $50 million to support quantum computing research and workforce training. The ultimate goal is to build a computer powered by 100,000 qubits — the basic unit of information in quantum computing.

The most powerful quantum computing chip today is a 433-qubit processor unveiled by IBM in November. A qubit is capable of faster and far more complex computations than a classic binary chip.

“Building a quantum computer is an ambitious undertaking that requires partnership,” Hartmut Neven, vice president of Google Quantum AI, said in a news release.

An emerging field, quantum technology operates at the subatomic level, building devices that detect, harness and leverage the tiniest particles to make potentially enormous advances in a wide range of applications. The University of Chicago has been at the forefront of the technology, helping the region become a leading global hub for quantum development and research.

Building the world’s first quantum supercomputer would be a “significant” boost, Chong said. The biggest challenge, he said, is the lack of a blueprint for making one.

“We wouldn’t be able to build it with today’s technology,” Chong said. “It uses too many resources, actually, which is why we’re creating this effort.”

For example, quantum computers need to operate at a temperature close to absolute zero. Like some massive 1960s-era UNIVAC computer, the quantum supercomputer would be “too large” without advancements in technology, requiring hundreds of refrigerators just to keep its cool while calculating, Chong said.

Both universities will develop prototypes over the next decade, hopefully progressing up to 1,000, 10,000 and ultimately 100,000 qubits of processing power, Chong said.

Once built, the quantum supercomputer would be exponentially more powerful than any classical computer. While the possibilities are endless, Chong said he has one application at the top of his supercomputer to-do list: fertilizer.

“A good one that has been proposed is to understand nitrogen fixation,” Chong said. “Essentially creating fertilizers using the least energy possible, with less energy producing food more efficiently.”


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