2023 was a year of great enthusiasm and hype in quantum computing, with bold predictions around achieving quantum advantage and reaching fault tolerance soon. However, the reality has not yet matched the rhetoric. While meaningful progress occurred on both the hardware and software fronts, significant challenges remain to achieve widescale practical quantum applications. As we enter 2024, it is worth looking back at the key developments and lessons from the past 12 months in the world of quantum information science.
The Qubit Counts Race
The qubit arms race was in full force this year, with multiple impressive qubit count benchmarks achieved. IBM demonstrated a 1,121 qubit system using its heavy hexagonal “Condor” chips. IonQ, a leader in trapped ion quantum technology, unveiled a 1,047-qubit machine. Chinese startup QuantumCTek made waves by announcing 1,199 qubits in its superconducting processors. Hitting these 1,000+ qubit milestones prompts press release titles about achieving “quantum supremacy.” However, while the raw qubit counts reveal progress, actually utilizing all these fragile qubits for practical calculations remains extremely difficult. Most quantum volume tests, which measure more meaningful baseline capabilities, remain far below what advanced fault-tolerant quantum computers will require. The fixation on qubit count above all else contributes to overinflated perceptions about the current power of quantum systems.
Financial Frenzy Around Quantum
Venture capital investment in quantum startups set new records in 2023, with private funding more than doubling year-over-year to $1.4 billion across over 100 deals globally. At least 5 new quantum computing unicorns with billion-dollar-plus valuations emerged, taking advantage of Wall Street’s appetite for futures-driven technologies. M&A also exploded, with acquisitions like Roche buying out Quantum Brilliance for $274 million and Airbus acquiring Quantum13. While some see risky signals akin to past hype cycles, most industry insiders view the quantum gold rush as a positive for nurturing the emerging ecosystem.
AI Extends to Quantum
The explosion of progress, hype and controversy around artificial intelligence models like DALL-E 2, ChatGPT, Claude and others sparked increased excitement about how quantum computing could play an enabling role for AI. Quantum algorithms like HHL for machine learning and QAOA for combinatorial problems are well-matched to data-intensive AI tasks. Companies like Quantinuum (formed from the merger of Honeywell Quantum Solutions and Cambridge Quantum) touted using “quantum natural language processing” to generate complex synthesized data sets for training learning models. However, these applications remain largely speculative and small-scale. Real integration between quantum and classical systems for AI is a long-term multi-year effort, despite enthusiastic claims about near-term quantum machine learning revolutions. The AI frenzy amplified existing tendencies for overpromising timelines around general purpose quantum advantage.
National Strategies Take Shape
2023 saw several influential nations publish more definitive national strategies around quantum computing technology priorities. The EU announced $6 billion in quantum funding under its Quantum Flagship initiative through 2030. The UK, Australia, India and other countries expanded existing quantum plans with billions in new committed funding as well. The US Congress will debate its National Quantum Initiative Act to coordinate priorities across government, industry and academia. The geopolitical technology race underpins most national quantum strategy pivots, but global collaboration also continues via efforts like the newly formed International Quantum Computing Union (IQCU).
Quantum Computing as a Cloud Utility
In 2023, IBM introduced the forward-looking concept of “Quantum Utility” – essentially, the idea of quantum computing delivered seamlessly via cloud platforms as a low-cost utility service the way electricity or cloud computer resources are consumed today. Rather than needing deep expertise with quantum hardware and software intricacies, this model envisions end users easily tapping into quantum capabilities on-demand when useful, while classical machines handle other tasks. However, this “quantum on tap” utility future relies on first achieving the monumental feat of making large-scale quantum computers reliable enough to offer a stable cloud service. While a compelling vision, much work across hardware, software and integration needs to occur before quantum utility can become a reality. Nonetheless, IBM’s concept catalyzed useful conversations about developing the full stack for user-friendly quantum access in the coming decades.
Enter Logical Qubits
Partly to move the conversation beyond mere physical qubit counts, the idea of “logical” qubits built on encodings from many physical qubits gained significant attention this year. Logical qubits apply quantum error correction algorithms to protect information, making their state far more reliable. This more sophisticated error correction approach contrasts with the delicate physical qubits used today, which quickly lose coherence due to noise. If robust logical qubits operating at scale can be realized in the coming years, it would accelerate the move beyond the so-called NISQ era of “noisy intermediate scale quantum” computers. However, debates continue around when this era transition might occur. Logical qubit demonstrations remain small and temperamental, but progress is occurring faster than once expected. By the end of 2023, logical qubits became one of the hottest new talking points from quantum computing hardware companies.
Quantum Computing You Can Own
Owning your own quantum computer moved closer to reality in 2023, albeit with purchase prices prohibitive for most buyers today. Both Quantinuum and Rigetti formally launched the first commercial quantum computer products available to enterprise buyers this year. Systems with 20-40 qubits range from $1 million to $2 million, while more advanced machines are up to $3 million. While too expensive for most organizations, it reveals the beginnings of a quantum computer market for practical use cases beyond pure research machines. Critics contend these systems provide insufficient value for the high prices charged today compared to public cloud access. But for some corporations, government agencies and well-funded labs focused on building deep in-house skillsets, owning quantum hardware directly is now an option.
Intel: The Quantum Chipmaker
Intel, the semiconductor giant synonymous with classical computing chips for decades, pressed forward with its quantum computing efforts in 2023. After acquiring quantum startup QuTech in late 2022, Intel revealed development plans for a 4,096 qubit system built with its advanced fabrication technologies in 2025-2026. With unmatched expertise in high-precision manufacturing, Intel aims to scale up quantum processors dramatically using its existing “silicon franchise”. Observers debate whether silicon or superconducting (niobium) chips will become dominant long-term. But with its huge engineering resources and $50+ billion in annual chip sales, Intel has the muscle to rival any quantum startup. Its growing quantum investments reflect technology giants now taking this space very seriously as a potential breakthrough area, instead of a mere research curiosity.
Beyond the Quantum Hype Cycle
While 2023 saw plenty of bombastic quantum computing claims and hype from ambitious startups and legacy tech companies alike, a class of promising quantum players took a different tack – focusing not on overnight quantum miracles, but the step-by-step blocking and tackling required to advance this complex field. Companies like ColdQuanta, Quantum Machines, Phasecraft and others gained attention by developing and selling more specialized quantum tools other than processors themselves – such as calibration systems, cryogenic platforms and software. This “picks and shovels” niche approach generally avoids overpromising near-term quantum capabilities. Instead, their role in providing enabling components for quantum systems often garners less flashy headlines but helps anchor the ecosystem on practical engineering milestones instead of speculative projection. As the gap between quantum’s long-term potential and short-term reality persists, this segment’s pragmatic outlook brings an important balancing effect.
The Quantum Talent Surge
Seeking skilled quantum researchers and engineers became a top priority across both industry and academia in 2023. Major science conferences saw record attendance numbers from student participants. Enrollments in quantum-focused university programs expanded considerably to meet demand from quantum-curious undergrads. Corporations from Amazon to Goldman Sachs competed fiercely for the small pool of experts emerging from top quantum PhD programs. Indeed’s job site listed quantum computing openings up 53% year-over-year, spanning hardware design, algorithm research, and software developer roles across startups and enterprise firms alike. Concerns remain about diversity issues within this specialization, but the quantum talent surge reflects a sharpened focus on building sustainable skill pipelines.
What Comes Next?
In total, while no watershed moments occurred in getting quantum computing technology mainstream in 2023, foundational capabilities advanced across problem domains, algorithms, hardware stacks and software tooling this past year. We’re still likely years away from commercial grade quantum advantage unlocking new computational feats classically infeasible. But the building blocks are falling into place step-by-step if current trajectories hold. A sober assessment reveals the road to scalable fault tolerance remains long and winding, filled with traps like overpromising timelines, gaps between lab and real-world conditions, and challenges translating early but fragile quantum advantage into actual business value soon. Nonetheless, the scope of what may eventually become possible one day with quantum computing makes patience and persistence through a lengthy maturation worthwhile. 2023 neither fully fulfilled hopes nor dashed them – rather, it underscored that realizing the long-term quantum future requires avoiding short-term hyperbole. If public and private efforts keep gradually chipping away at the manifold obstacles still ahead, quantum’s next year may prove itself the most profound one yet.