BMW takes first steps into the quantum computing revolution

News Highlights: BMW takes first steps into the quantum computing revolution.

Honeywell’s quantum computer calculates using qubits made of charged ytterbium atoms that are the size of a football in this room. Lasers manipulate the atoms to direct the calculation.


BMW is rolling in quantum computers, the German automaker said Wednesday, using a Honeywell quantum computer to find more efficient ways to buy the myriad components that go into its vehicles.

The automotive giant has started using Honeywell machines, first the H0 and then the newer H1, to determine which components should be purchased from which supplier at what time to ensure the lowest cost while maintaining production schedules. For example, one BMW supplier is faster, while the other is cheaper. The machine optimizes the choices from a cascade of options and sub-options. Ultimately BMW hopes that this means smoother production.

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“We are excited to explore the transformative potential of quantum computing in the automotive industry and are committed to pushing the boundaries of technical performance,” Julius Marcea, a BMW Group IT chief, said in a statement.

BMW’s experiment with quantum computing is one of the first real-world applications of the nascent technology. Optimization problems, such as the one the automaker is trying to solve, are among the areas where quantum computers are expected to outperform ordinary machines and find the best course of action from a daunting array of possibilities.

BMW began evaluating quantum computers in 2018 and has many ideas for where it could help, Marcea said. Quantum computers could improve battery chemistry in electric vehicles and find the best places to install charging stations. It could also help address the constellation of requirements in design and production – everything from cost and safety to aerodynamics and durability.

At least eventually. “Our experts expect it will be several years before real quantum computers can be used commercially,” he said

Quantum computers outperform today’s machines

In the early stages, BMW will test the quantum computer speed and ensure that small-scale calculations match the results of classic machines. However, in about 18 to 24 months, quantum computers could solve optimization problems that no classic computer can handle, says Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell’s quantum computing company.

Quantum computers are fundamentally different from traditional machines. They store and process data using qubits. Qubits can store a combination of one and zero, instead of just a one and a zero, the way classic computers work. In addition, multiple qubits can be linked together through a phenomenon called entanglement. As a result, qubits can include a multitude of possible solutions to a problem. With the right processing algorithm guiding qubit interactions, bad solutions actually cancel each other out, allowing for good answers.

Quantum computers rush to build machines with more than a few dozen qubits, in the hope that thousands and then millions can perform much more complex calculations. They are also working on stabilizing qubits so that calculations can take longer. An important part of that improvement is quantum computing error correction, which should help calculations withstand qubit glitches.

Other companies working with Honeywell include DHL, Merck, Accenture, JP Morgan Chase and BP.

Help with programming quantum computers

Programming quantum computers is correspondingly different from programming classic computers, although technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and IBM are working on layers of software to make them more accessible.

Companies interested in quantum computers often wonder if they can write their own quantum algorithms or program a quantum machine themselves, Uttley says. “The answer for almost every company out there is, ‘No, I can’t’,” he said.

For now, expert middlemen like Cambridge Quantum Computing and Zapata Computing help out. BMW relied on another, Entropica Labs.

Entropica is keen on better quantum computing hardware, such as machines with more qubits, with better processing connections between qubits and lower error rates for quantum computing, said co-founder Ewan Munro.

“We certainly don’t have the big and powerful quantum computers that can run the kind of algorithms that, for example, give exponential accelerations for tasks in optimization or machine learning,” compared to classic machines, he said.

Zapata CEO Christopher Savoie sees the rise of quantum computing to commercial utility as inevitable at this stage. “It is no longer a matter of if, but when,” he said.

Honeywell’s advancement in quantum computing

Honeywell is in a race to make that progress and competes with companies, among others Silicon Quantum Computing, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Rigetti Computing, IonQ and Xanadu.

Honeywell’s fastest current quantum computer, the H1, currently has 10 qubits, but in the coming weeks the company plans to put more into it – a range between 12 and 20. The design can accommodate up to 40, and Honeywell has plans for many, many more in future generations in the years to come.

“When you add extra qubits, you cross that threshold of something that you can’t compute classically anymore,” Uttley said.

Having more qubits is also required for a crucial quantum computing technology, the development of error correction to keep calculations on track for longer. The basis for error correction is to concatenate multiple physical qubits into a single, more persistent “logical” qubit.

Honeywell is about to create a logical qubit, Uttley said. “We are confident that this will happen this year – ideally in the first half of this year.”


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