Google, IBM, and Amazon have made frequent appearances lately in news stories about the coming age of quantum computing. Google claims to have achieved “quantum supremacy”, while IBM wants readers to take that information with a grain of salt. Amazon for its part has recently begun to offer cloud quantum computing through Amazon Web Services. But who is winning the patent race?
A Little Background
Classical computers use bits to represent data. A bit can only take on the value zero or one. This means that at the lowest level of computation all computer programs are carrying out is binary arithmetic. Quantum computers, on the other hand, represent data as qubits. Due to the properties of quantum mechanical systems, qubits can take on both the values zero and one at the same time, which is called superposition. This opens up a new world of algorithms which are fundamentally different from the ones carried out by classical computers.
Searching for granted patents filed over the past 20 years with “quantum” and “computer” in the title or abstract reveals that IBM seems to be in the lead among these three companies.
However, reviewing ultimate parents by year indicates that Google’s patenting activity in this area has picked up more recently and could be on an upward trend.
Amazon has taken a different strategy. Rather than build their own quantum computer, AWS will be offering access to quantum computing resources belonging to IonQ, D-Wave, and Rigetti. D-Wave and Rigetti both make appearances in the two top ten charts above.
Who are D-Wave and Rigetti?
Rigetti, which was founded in 2013, designs and makes quantum computing chips. They also have a platform called Forest for developers that want to write algorithms on quantum hardware. Rigetti, like many of the other companies working on quantum hardware, is focused on gate-model quantum computing.
D-Wave, on the other hand, has chosen to focus on quantum annealing which is used for a narrower subset of algorithms called optimization problems. This technology has consequences for processing speeds in machine learning and AI.
Where is Microsoft in all this?
While Microsoft makes an appearance close to the top of current owners they, like Amazon, still do not have a working quantum computer and intend to rely on partnerships in the near term, according to TechCrunch. Microsoft has been focused on creating a topological quantum computer, but it seems they have yet to make a breakthrough. Sometimes winning the patent race doesn’t lead to winning the race overall. Though it remains to be seen whether this gamble on patent filings will pay off in the long run.
Figure from patent US10333048B2 Universal topological quantum computers based on majorana nanowire networks patent, current owner Microsoft Technology Licensing, LLC.
Why Should I Care?
Quantum computing could turn out to be a world-changing technology. It has applications in places as far afield as video game design as well as more obvious applications in AI, cryptography, and modeling. The algorithms that run on quantum computers are inherently different from what runs on classical computing hardware making it possible to perform computations that could not be carried out in a lifetime today. The front runners in place when the quantum computing industry takes off will be ushering in a new era, so it will pay to stay ahead of the curve. Keeping an eye on the patent data could prove a valuable decision.