Computing at the speed of light

Computing at the speed of light

Toronto-based Xanadu is taking on Google and IBM in the race to develop quantum computers

Growing up in Australia, Christian Weedbrook was already something of a junior entrepreneur, cooking up novel product ideas to sell at a local flea market. After graduating with a PhD in photonic quantum computing, however, he found a way to marry that pioneering spirit with leading edge innovation.

In 2016, he founded Toronto-based Xanadu, a photonic quantum computing hardware and software company that has joined the global race to advance quantum technologies. The implications of quantum technology are potentially world-altering, allowing industries to solve certain complex data problems within seconds.

Here, Weedbrook talks about the quantum advantage, the role it could play in the future and where he hopes to see the company in the next decade.

What is quantum computing? I admit I struggle to understand it…

It’s still a computer, so it’s going to compute things. But the other word is quantum. And you’re now computing using different laws of physics called quantum physics. The laws that traditional computers are based on, for the most part, are laws that we’re used to seeing in everyday life. For example, we’re not surprised by seeing someone throw a ball or any laws that govern the trajectory of that ball. Now quantum physics is how nature operates at the quantum level. So, at the atomic level, at the photonic level and so forth. Those laws are very different. We can leverage these laws to build a computer. Why do we want to do that? Because if you can build a powerful enough quantum computer, there are certain problems you can solve much, much faster. That’s really the key point: it’s still a computer, but it can do certain problems much faster than traditional computers.

How does a quantum computer compare to a supercomputer?

The team demonstrated what is known as quantum supremacy last summer. Quantum supremacy is where you choose a specific problem, and have a supercomputer and a quantum computer go head-to-head to see who reaches the answer the quickest. Xanadu did that without our quantum computer Borealis. It solved a particular math problem in less than a second. A traditional supercomputer would have taken 7,000 years to solve the same question. So that gives you a good idea of why you’d want to use a quantum computer. It was the first time in Canada that quantum supremacy was demonstrated. It’s published in Nature. The next step is solving more business-related problems, which is the goal over the coming years.

How are quantum technologies going to shape the future?

There are a number of areas where it’s going to revolutionize things. Xanadu, for example, is working on an application to help with next-generation battery development. We’re working with a number of car companies to see what problems can be solved when you have a powerful enough quantum computer. A second big area would be pharmaceuticals and next-generation drug discovery. Third, would be financial institutions to speed up things such as portfolio optimization. Another one would be logistics — you can save a lot of money in fuel costs if you know the most direct path. Our current methods for solving these problems using traditional computers, even supercomputers, are really not efficient. They get the job done, but the hope is that a quantum computer can do it much faster and more accurately.

Just how powerful are Xanadu’s quantum computers?

We have a few different types of quantum computers. Borealis is the most powerful one we have — it’s currently the most powerful quantum computer for a particular problem anywhere in the world. Borealis was released for anyone with an internet connection to use it through the Xanadu cloud and also through Amazon Web Services.

What kind of interaction could a person have with Borealis via the cloud?

These days, it’s really defined by a lot of research and development. So, there are a lot of people playing around with it. That includes researchers and government institutions, government labs and universities around the world. There’s also a lot of companies now in the automobile space and in the financial industry that have small quantum teams. So, they’re looking to get an understanding of where it’s at and to start solving early-stage problems.

What’s it like to be competing against companies like Google and IBM?

It’s a lot of fun. We’re proudly Canadian. There’s probably three to five main approaches on how you can build a quantum computer. We’re using light or photons to build ours. But there’s no clear winner yet. So Google and IBM are competing with each other more directly, because they’re literally using the same approach, which is different from ours. I do think there’s room for more than one winner.

Even when you’re within a large corporation, you are still competing with the internal resources. Xanadu is a pure play quantum computing company. That’s the only thing we’re focused on. I believe we have just as many, if not more people, at Xanadu working on quantum than at Google or IBM. We’re well equipped and we’re excited to see how we play out in the future.

How did you become interested in quantum computing?

Like a lot of people in the field, it was through my studies. I did an undergrad in math and physics and then a master’s in quantum technology. I was always looking for an application that tied physics and maths together, and I saw computing as being one of the ultimate applications. And ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I tried a few silly business ideas when I was a kid.

What were you thinking up as a kid?

We were trying to make money in flea markets at 5 a.m. just selling stuff that we could sell. Other times, we would make these heat packs that would have rice in them that you could heat up in the microwave and use for injuries and so forth. So very simple ideas, but nothing really took off. I did that straight after high school. It didn’t work out and I went back to university. But even to this day, I have a large number of books I read on business and entrepreneurs.

You must be grateful it didn’t work out with the rice bags.

We didn’t sell that many.

Working in this field, does it surprise you that there are still so many things we are trying to figure out?

One thousand percent. I mean, my PhD was in this field from a theoretical point of view, but the number of breakthroughs and new insights that the team has at Xanadu daily — I can’t keep up with them. But if I could, we’d be in trouble. Because it means that people aren’t doing their job. And we’ve got much smarter people than myself working here.

So where do you see Xanadu and this technology in the next decade?

In the next seven years, computers, quantum computers will be at their most powerful and they’ll be used more widely throughout the world. It would be a cloud-based system predominantly, so people could access it over the cloud or Amazon Web Services. You’ll see quantum data centres appear as well. Hopefully Xanadu will be at the forefront with a quantum data centre in Toronto and one in the U.S. and beyond.

There’s not going to be a time where people have a laptop quantum computer, is there?

It’s unlikely to happen in this decade. But I wouldn’t rule it out.

MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full portrait series here.

Photo credit: Jenna Marie Wakani