The Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs recently funded an innovation project for VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to build the country’s first quantum computer.
VTT enlisted IQM, a homegrown startup, to help with the project, which began at the end of 2020 and will continue until 2024.
VTT is a leading European research institution, owned by the Finnish government. It is responsible for taking the knowledge of researchers from a variety of scientific fields and making it available to industry. It believes that the best way for quantum computing to be ready for industry is to create a working quantum computer.
“When it comes to quantum technology, Finland has one of those unique opportunities where a small country has a whole value chain in place,” says Himadri Majumdar, programme manager for the Quantum Initiative at VTT. While other countries have strong ecosystems for quantum technologies, they work on many different topics and platforms. Finnish researchers focus almost exclusively on the superconducting qubit approach, which they have been using for years and know very well.”
This is not the first time Finland has taken quantum technology from research into industrialization. They have done so already for quantum sensors. Finnish spin-off companies have been producing sensors based on quantum technology since the 1980s and the 1990s, in the form of superconducting quantum interference devices (Squids), which were commercialised as essential components in brain imaging systems. Finnish startups also sold terahertz spectrum and terahertz imagery – both quantum technologies that are used in space applications as well as scanners at airports.
The country is well-positioned to play an important role in the next generation quantum devices and sensors. For example, atomic clocks that are scaled down to smaller dimensions and used in consumer electronics. The success of other quantum technologies has led to Finland’s success with quantum computers. The government hopes to be ahead of the game in this area.
” Now is the time to start laying the foundation for quantum computing in industry,” Majumdar says. “A five-qubit computer was built at the end of last yea. It is important to benchmark the results of your program and run it. This is the ultimate measure for success. We are developing the software stacks we will need to do this in early 2022.”
We don’t anticipate solving any practical problems using five qubits. The device is a good proof of concept. The project team will then expand the computing capacity with 20 qubits in 2022 – and then with 50 qubits by the end of 2024, when they hope to solve real problems.
“We think the 2020s is a crucial decade for building the fundamentals,” says Majumdar. This is the time when there is a race to make more qubits. There will be two paths. We have started the first, building a computer that has a lot of NISQ [noisy intermediate-scale quantum], qubits. The second path, which will also be taken during this decade, is to find ways of building pure qubits – that is, qubits that are not noisy and do not need error correction.”
Growing ecosystems in Finland
To assist in the project of building a quantum computer, VTT chose IQM, a Finnish startup that was founded in 2019 and now has 140 employees. “We act as a systems integrator,” says Jan Goetz, CEO and co-founder of IQM. “Our job is to take the different pieces and build quantum computing systems.”
One of the pieces they use is the cryogenic system from Finnish company Bluefors, which grew out of Finland’s long history of research in cold temperature physics. Founded in 2008, Bluefors eventually found a niche in quantum computing and is now the world’s leading provider of the cryogenic enclosures used to keep superconducting qubits at temperatures very close to absolute zero.
“We have seen other startups emerge since we built Finland’s first quantum machine this year,” Goetz says. “Algorithmiq is one of them, and Quanscient is another one that just very recently formed. Several companies from other countries have also seen the opportunity and are now part our local ecosystem. With this combination of homegrown startups and the local subsidiaries of foreign firms, we now have a nice ecosystem of organisations forming around quantum computing.”
While almost all industrialized nations around the world recognize quantum computing as a strategic tool, Finland is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this new paradigm. The government hopes to increase this advantage through investments – some local companies and research organizations are also benefiting by EU initiatives. Venture capital is also flowing into Finland to cash out on the country’s skills.
Research, educational and research ecosystems are also forming with plans to recruit more scientists and professors. VTT, Aalto University and Helsinki University are founding members of a research community called InstituteQ, which focuses on developing world-class quantum expertise and helping business make use of quantum computing.
The Finns know that Finland cannot be a Silicon Valley. The economy is just not big enough. Finnish startups know that exporting their products and services is a must from the start. This is why Finnish companies are so successful on the international market.
“As a supplier of IQM supercomputing centers and for companies who can afford to buy their own quantum computers, Goetz says. As systems integrators, we provide a complete system. The system will include more than IQM parts.
” We built the heart, which is the quantum processor. Then we added a bit of control electronics and some of the software. He says that the software can be described as a firmware stack. All the rest is fabricated by him. We buy cryogenics from Bluefors. Cables are also purchased. Finally, we put it all together. Then we bring it all together.”
IQM manufactured the qubits for the five-qubit prototype and will continue up to the 50-qubit computer, which is expected to be a working system that can solve real problems. IQM owns its own fabrication line and uses it to make the processor. It starts with bare silicon wafers. They also make use of the Otanano National Infrastructure, which has the largest R&D cleanrooms in the Nordic Countries and is jointly managed by VTT University and Aalto University.
A new usage model will one day arise
One way to illustrate how quantum computers could be used is to look at how Google Maps determines the best route. This is a complex problem that requires a lot of computation. This is not the problem that your smartphone can solve. Your smartphone does not communicate the problem to any server in a datacentre. The path is then calculated by a powerful computer, and the answer is sent back to your smartphone.
Quantum computing will likely be available to consumers in this manner in the future. Most users are unaware of the details. Companies can also benefit from quantum computing by using a similar model for R&D. Companies looking to discover new materials can request simulation and modeling services. Some parts will be done by a quantum computing cloud, while others will be handled by a traditional computer.
IBM, and other companies offer cloud-based quantum computing services. These services are limited to simulating quantum computation and are only available to researchers. Researchers can use the simulators to test algorithms. Those with a few qubits can also compare the results with the ones they have on their own prototype quantum computer.
A practical system that offers services to end users and application developers is still in development. One way is to create specific libraries, such as a chemistry library that can simulate new molecules. Application developers need only access these libraries to develop a solution that w