Microsoft backs optical quantum computing developer Photonic

Microsoft backs optical quantum computing developer Photonic

09 Nov 2023

Canadian startup reveals strategic collaboration and $100 M venture funding round.

The quantum computing startup Photonic has raised $100 million in new venture funding, and agreed a strategic collaboration with Microsoft aimed at scaling the technology rapidly.

Established by Simon Fraser University researchers Stephanie Simmons and Michael Thewalt back in 2016, the company is focused on a quantum computing architecture based in silicon material, using integrated photonics to link silicon spin qubits.

Revealing details of the firm’s technological approach alongside news of the latest funding, Simmons said:

“Quantum computing is real, and we believe that – within five years, significantly sooner than the widely accepted timeframe – we will be the first quantum computing company to offer a scalable, distributed, and fault-tolerant solution.”

Microsoft vision

In its own blog post about the collaboration, Microsoft wrote that Photonic’s approach could support quantum communication over standard telecom wavelengths using its “Azure” cloud computing infrastructure, and that the two firms would address three stages of quantum networking.

The first stage will aim to deliver entanglement between two separate quantum devices via photons through telecom fiber, before the firms then attempt to demonstrate a quantum repeater that can capture, entangle, and hold quantum information reliably for a short time.

The third stage would focus on delivering a fault-tolerant quantum repeater compatible with the Azure cloud service.

“With this technology, we can overcome any limitations on distance in the network, and enable the ability to create a full-scale, global quantum internet,” Microsoft stated. Jason Zander, the computing giant’s executive VP of strategic missions and technologies, added:

“There is an opportunity to ignite new capabilities across the quantum ecosystem extending beyond computing, such as networking and sensing, and unlocking applications and scientific discovery at scale across chemistry, materials science, metrology, communications, and many other fields. The capabilities we aim to deliver with Photonic can enable this vision and bring about quantum’s impact far more quickly than otherwise possible.”

Color centers

A key feature of the Photonic approach is what’s known as a “silicon color center”, or “T-center” – described by Simmons as the “missing component needed to finally unlock the first credible path to impactful commercial quantum computing”.

According to a Simmons-authored paper published in the journal Nature in 2020, those centers are isolated point defects in silicon, caused by impurities or defects in the silicon crystal lattice, that emit light at telecom wavelengths.

In a new paper recently submitted to the arXiv physics pre-publication platform, Simmons outlines how the color T center approach combines the advantages of silicon fabrication and scalability with telecom emission and long-lived spin memories into a quantum system.

“Thanks to the integrated silicon photonics platform, thousands of qubits can be fabricated and addressed on a single chip with optical and electronic control and routing, and modules can be connected together across existing global telecommunications infrastructure without any transduction losses,” wrote the Photonic “chief quantum officer”.

“Using a T center network to distribute verified quantum entanglement allows for device-independent networking protocols, providing the ultimate protection against eavesdropper attacks, as well as other high-value applications leveraging entanglement distribution such as blind computing.”

‘Awesome potential’

Photonic’s CEO Paul Terry, who was previously an executive at Cray Supercomputing, added: “Ultimately, the breadth of problems to which quantum computing can offer a solution means it will have a tangible, meaningful impact on people all around the world.

“We’re moving to large-scale, accessible quantum computers networked together to provide access to quantum services that will enable companies and governments to suddenly tackle problems that are, right now, beyond our capabilities because of the inescapable constraints of classical computing.”

The firm’s latest financial backing comes from Microsoft and venture groups Inovia Capital and Amadeus Capital Partners, alongside the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, the UK government’s National Security Strategic Investment Fund, and others.

It brings total funding in the firm to $140 million, with Amadeus co-founder Hermann Hauser saying:

“Photonic is solving one of the central challenges for scalable quantum computing. By linking qubits with photons on a silicon-based architecture, the power of quantum processing can be unleashed across a distributed computing network with confidence that error correction is able to keep pace. This is an innovation with awesome potential.”

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