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Startup debuts software to help any company use ‘quantum algorithms’

September 24, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

A Boston-based startup has released software designed to make it easier for companies to use algorithms invented for quantum computing to improve business processes.

The software has already been used by a number of banks and investment firms, including the Spanish bank BBVA, to optimize financial portfolios and to better assess risk. It has also been used by petrochemical companies to optimize their processes.

Zapata, the company behind the software, envisions that it will also be used to help companies in other industries build better batteries for electric vehicles, optimize logistics routes and supply chains, and find new pharmaceuticals.

Zapata was cofounded in Boston in 2017 by Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a leading researcher in quantum chemistry who was at Harvard University and is now at the University of Toronto, and members of his research lab.

The company’s software, which it calls Orquestra, provides a way for companies to use algorithms that were originally designed to take advantage of the unique properties of quantum computers. These powerful machines, which are just beginning to find practical applications, harness the strange properties of quantum physics to perform calculations.

For instance, while classical computers—which is what scientists call non-quantum computers—represent information in a binary form called bits, represented by either a 0 or 1, quantum computers can represent information in multiple states simultaneously, so information can be both 0 and 1, and in some cases, any state between those two numbers. In addition, in a normal computer, each bit functions independently from the others. But in a quantum computer, the qubits, as the quantum information units are called, impact one another, working collectively to arrive at a solution.

These two properties make quantum computers potentially much more powerful than conventional ones, enabling them to perform some calculations much faster than on a classical machine. In fact, theoretically, quantum computers could perform some calculations that no conventional computer could crunch in a reasonable time frame.

Last year, Google used a quantum computer to demonstrate what it claimed was a calculation of this type, a milestone in computer science known as “quantum supremacy.” In the future, this may allow quantum computers to do things like discover new materials with incredible properties—like room temperature superconductors—or crack the most common form of existing digital encryption.

For the most part, today’s quantum computers are too error-prone to be used for these kinds of feats. Last week, IBM announced an ambitious road map for development of its quantum computers that may see machines capable enough for these kinds of solutions by the end of the decade.

But algorithms which have been designed to run on quantum computers can sometimes arrive at better solutions, and faster ones, than conventional algorithms, even if they are run on a classical computer. That means businesses might still be able to derive benefits from using these quantum techniques today.

Orquestra enables programmers—even those without highly specialized training in how to write software for a quantum computer—to use these “quantum algorithms” on a real quantum computer, a simulated one, or a classical machine. It also helps the programmers automatically segment parts of whatever problem they are working on—using a quantum computer to do some of the work and a classical computer to do the rest. In the software world, Orquestra is what’s known as an orchestration platform, hence the name.

Christopher Savoie, Zapata’s chief executive officer, says that Orquestra is built to allow programmers to work with any vendor’s library of quantum algorithms and helps them figure out how best to run them on any quantum computer or a mix of quantum and traditional computing. It also allows companies to easily switch out the kind of underlying hardware they are using, so they don’t have to get locked in to a particular quantum computing vendor.

That’s critical for many companies because there are many different hardware approaches to quantum computing, and with the field being so nascent, it remains unclear which kind of quantum computer, let alone which vendor’s computer, will ultimately prove to be most capable.

The company’s software supports integrations with cloud-based quantum computing services offered by IBM, Google, and Honeywell, and by quantum computing startups IonQ and Rigetti Computing. It also offers simulated quantum computers available through Amazon’s Braket cloud computing service and others.

Carlos Kuchkovsky, BBVA global head of research and patents, says that the Spanish bank has formed a team to explore a number of potential use cases for quantum computing and has completed several proof of concept projects. Many of these are focused on financial portfolio optimization, and BBVA has worked with Zapata’s Orquestra to help run these tests.

“The idea is to find ways to reduce the risk level of a complex portfolio of assets, while maintaining the same profit level,” Kuchkovsky says. “If we can do that, that’s a clear win for us.”

Among the financial optimization scenarios BBVA has explored using Zapata’s software were finding better arbitrage opportunities between currency pairs and also ways to better assess counterparty risk when pricing complex derivatives, he says.

In derivative pricing, the bank realized “a quadratic speedup” in the ability to run the simulations needed to price these algorithms, he says. That means that a process that might have taken, for example, over an hour on a classical computer, could be completed in eight minutes using a quantum algorithm.

Savoie says that some academic quantum researchers have wrongly disparaged current uses of quantum computers and quantum algorithms because they can’t yet do things that are impossible to do on a classical computer. While being able to solve these kinds of ultra-hard problems may be critical for a few industrial use cases—such as inventing new kinds of materials or chemicals—for many companies, he says, doing the impossible isn’t what matters. In business, time is money, and in many cases, simply running an existing process faster than classical computers can is enough to justify using quantum computers and quantum algorithms. The fact that the solutions the quantum-based approaches come up with may also be superior is an added bonus, he says.

Zapata has received $31 million in venture capital funding to date from investors that include the venture capital arms of Honeywell, Comcast, Robert Bosch, and BASF, as well as Prelude Ventures, Pillar VC, and The Engine.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Carlos Kuchkovsky’s last name.