Trapped atomic ions are one of the leading platforms to build a quantum computer. You mentioned Dave Wineland. When we were thinking about the out game — this is the 1990s — we were thinking long-term, this is going to be a computer. It’s got to be solid state.
We know that Moore’s law gave us billions of transistors on a little chip and all the wonderful things we’ve learned about how to engineer that type of a system. We need to figure out how to translate the solid state, and I have to say, it’s been 20–25 years, and the solid state systems, I’m not sure they’ll ever work, to be honest, and part of the problem is, you need nearly perfect surfaces and materials. You can have zero defects to keep the noise levels down and there’s a lot of wonderful research that’s pushing the limits on that, but in terms of building a system right now that’s usable, say, in the next five years, I just don’t see it.
We’re playing around with these individual atoms, and if you saw the lab, you would be horrified, just because it’s huge — optical tables, lasers everywhere. Like I said, duct tape and glue. Things are just barely working, with an army of grad students and postdocs, but a lot has happened in 20–25 years.
And again, I’ll pay homage to Jungsang Kim, who’s an engineer and the cofounder of IonQ, who looked at this technology and said, “You know, they could use a dose of engineering. They could use lasers that are tiny that work all the time, so you just plug them in and they work like black boxes,” and in these intervening 20 or 30 years, ion traps right now, the main challenge to scale is entirely engineering. It’s not about breakthroughs in research.
When we started IonQ in 2016, we certainly had that vision. In fact, we had a very concrete and specific road map, an architecture to scale arbitrarily big quantum computers: It would require a lot of money. It would require a lot of engineers. Not so many physicists, but more engineers to build systems smaller and cheaper, and the journey at IonQ, that was six years ago. We’ve built six generations of systems, and three more are on the way. Every one of them is getting better and more powerful. It’s great because even though I’m a physicist by trade, I wouldn’t say that we’re doing all that much physics in the building of these systems.
We’re using them for wonderful science — not just physics, but other areas: chemistry and even logistics, finance, many, many different areas — so, there’s always going to be science to be had, but not at the qubit level. We’re done with the qubit. We’re never going to improve a single atom. We don’t have to manufacture it. It’s given to us. You can replicate it with absolute perfection. That’s not a surprise, and if you have the same isotope of the same element, this is the recipe for scale. So, what we learned from the ’90s until now is that this is what companies, where their sweet spot is: doing the engineering, going through engineering processes, making a standard system that is scalable and that can be used by a third party.
We started with private funding from venture capital in 2016, and the big event in the last year was, we’re now a public company. As of October 1 last year, we’re listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and that’s been quite a ride. We have a quarterly earnings call coming up, so remind me not to tell you too many deep secrets before that. But with that, being a public company, we have a big bank account allowing us to prosecute this road map over the next several years.