IonQ: An Investment in our Quantum Future

Francis Ho, PhD, Senior Vice President and Co-Head of Samsung Catalyst Fund

Looking back over the past few decades, it’s incredible how much technology has advanced. The smartphone I carry today has more computing power than NASA had available to guide the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon and back, 50 years ago. We can thank Moore’s law and the relentless pace of innovation.

But even with the amazing advances of Moore’s law, some computational tasks seem just as infeasible as they did 50 years ago. For the current classical computing paradigm, certain types of computational complexity are fundamentally out of reach.

In fact, when complexity grows exponentially, it’s difficult for the human mind to comprehend how quickly even the fastest supercomputers can be brought to their knees. For example, a Sudoku puzzle, which has merely a 9 x 9 grid of numbers and rules so simple that they can be learned in a minute, has more than 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960 possible solutions, which may be larger than the number of stars in the universe!

This is a simple example of a class of problems that suffers from combinatorial explosion, where even a relatively small increase in the number of degrees of freedom (e.g., number of electrons and atoms in a molecule, or number of vertices in a graph), due to exponential growth in complexity, can make the task so daunting that conventional computers may take eons to search through the candidate solutions. For example, combinatorial explosion may arise in important questions such as:

  • On any given day, what’s the most efficient way for companies to route their products from the factory to consumers?
  • What’s the most promising biomolecule to treat a particular disease?
  • What are the best materials for building optimized batteries or displays?

Over the past few decades, a new computing paradigm has emerged to tackle these types of challenges. From its origins in the theoretical musings and debates of physicists and mathematicians in the early 1980s, quantum computing (QC) has steadily moved from speculative research toward practical applications. Today it’s poised to offer a fundamentally new approach for navigating extreme computational complexity.

Instead of a classical bit that can be either 1 or 0 (i.e., yes or no), quantum superposition means that a quantum bit, or qubit, can be a 1, a 0, or any state in between, all at the same time! And quantum entanglement means that multiple qubits can be linked together as if they were a connected entity, even if they’re separated by great distances.

This mind-bending flexibility allows quantum computing, for the suitable classes of problems that can leverage quantum superposition and entanglement, to process more information faster than anything else available or even imaginable. By harnessing the physics of the subatomic realm, quantum computers can run simulations, solve problems, and answer questions that even the most powerful classical supercomputers find difficult or impossible to tackle.

This is why we are excited to announce today that the Samsung Catalyst Fund is co-leading with Mubadala Capital a $55 million investment round in IonQ, a leader in quantum computing. With this funding—which adds to prior investments from NEA, GV, and Amazon—IonQ will make its trapped-ion universal quantum computer accessible to businesses via the cloud. IonQ has developed the most powerful trapped-ion quantum computing system to date and has harnessed its technology to break new ground in quantum computing, such as generating the world’s first quantum computer simulation of the water molecule.

In a way, our investment can be traced back to when IonQ cofounder Jungsang Kim and I were in the same quantum physics research group in graduate school at Stanford, 25 years ago. From those days, I had developed an enormous respect for Jungsang’s deep technology expertise and dedication.

Together with IonQ cofounder Chris Monroe, one of the fathers of quantum computing (his 1995 paper demonstrated the first quantum logic gate and contributed to the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics), and IonQ COO Stewart Allen, a pioneer in web software, they form a science and engineering team that is the best in the field. And when IonQ CEO Peter Chapman joined the company and brought his deep experience and industry network in commercializing and scaling new technologies, we knew that we had to invest in this team.

At Samsung, we see a unique opportunity to accelerate this exciting industry by leveraging our strengths in core technology and manufacturing, combined with our market leadership in semiconductors, display, and battery, to accelerate both the supply and demand sides of quantum computing.

On the supply side, as a leader in Moore’s law, device physics, and high-speed electronics, Samsung could partner with pioneers such as IonQ to scale QC performance to the next level. On the demand side, Samsung could be a key customer for QC solutions: Samsung’s semiconductor, display, battery, and biologics pharmaceuticals businesses will benefit from more advanced materials and molecules, while Samsung’s global manufacturing for smart phones, TVs, and appliances will benefit from more optimized logistics. So we see a tremendous opportunity to “close the loop” and build a virtuous cycle to advance quantum computing.

Here’s one more reason we made this investment: At Samsung, we’re committed to charting a Tech-for-Good direction. Although commercially viable quantum computers will take years or decades to emerge, they will eventually have the potential to address some of the planet’s biggest and most complex challenges. Quantum computers could revolutionize the global Tech for Good movement by:

  • Accelerating drug development to treat and cure diseases
  • Reducing the technology industry’s carbon footprint through more efficient logistics
  • Advancing the design of improved materials for batteries, wind turbines, transmission lines, and other sustainable technologies to enable clean energy generation, transmission, and storage

As with all major technology leaps, the quantum computing industry will take time to mature. After all, it took nearly 25 years from the first demonstration of the transistor to the first commercially available microprocessor, and almost 35 years elapsed between the first mobile telephone call from a handheld device and the introduction of the smartphone.

Will we be carrying around quantum computers in our pockets? Certainly not any time soon. But if this radical new computing architecture progresses as we expect it to, we look forward to a bright future for IonQ and the entire quantum computing ecosystem.

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