Finland combines a quantum computer with a supercomputer

Finnish research and technology organization VTT announced a milestone last month when it collaborated with CSC—IT Center for Science and Aalto Universityit connected the quantum computer HELMI to the pan-European supercomputer LUM.

HELMI is Finland’s first quantum computer, a 5-qubit system that became operational in 2021. And the system it was connected to is no ordinary supercomputer – LUMI, the fastest supercomputer in Europe capable of running 309 petaflops. Like HELMI, LUMI was also put into operation in 2021.

Hosted by CSC – IT Center for Science, LUMI rank three in which latest top 500 List of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Not only is it fast, but it’s also environmentally friendly (compared to other supercomputers), ranking seventh in the ranking Green 500 List the most energy-efficient supercomputers in the world.

A practical reason for making such a hybrid system is that quantum computers are difficult to use as stand-alone systems. Programmers must consider the unique architecture of any given system and the type of errors observed for each of the qubits within it. Each qubit is flawed in its own way.

In addition, the ecosystem around quantum computing is not yet mature enough to offer a good set of tools to program quantum computers, run programs and read the output. But there are other reasons.

“We want to complement supercomputing with quantum computing,” he said Ville Kotovirta, leader of the Quantum Algorithms team at VTT. “Hopefully, the most challenging problems of classical computing – for example electronic structure problems – could be solved more efficiently with quantum computers in the future. On the other hand, supercomputers could help to optimize quantum algorithms and they can post-process measurement data to mitigate errors in the calculation. As quantum computers grow in size, these optimization problems become more challenging and could benefit from supercomputing.”

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Kotovirta added: “Researchers can start developing and investigating new hybrid algorithms that leverage both quantum and classical computing. This is non-trivial and requires a thorough understanding of the problem and the formulation of new algorithms to optimally split computational tasks into quantum and classical parts.”

The latest move to connect HELMI to LUMI was made to support researchers in the short-term. But even after quantum computers go industrial, it will still make sense to connect them to traditional computers. A future scenario is the provision of enterprise supercomputing services, where the supercomputer solves most of the problems, but then assigns a subset of tasks to a connected quantum computer for which there is a quantum advantage.

Experts agree that quantum computers will one day solve a very small set of useful problems that would take supercomputers thousands of years to solve — and they will solve those problems in minutes or hours. These problems include the development of new products and materials for the pharmaceutical, chemical and battery industries.

Machine learning applications to generate novel molecular structures based on existing molecular data could be faster and more accurate, significantly accelerating the process of new materials design. Quantum algorithms will also be very good at solving optimization problems – for example, finding the best design for a supply chain, finding the best itinerary, or figuring out the optimal asset allocation for a financial portfolio.

Mikael Johansson, quantum strategist at CSCHe sees another advantage of networking the computers in the fact that experts come together – and a good place where different experts can get together and exchange ideas are the centers in which high performance computing (HPC) is operated.

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“Achieving a quantum advantage is a truly multidisciplinary problem, whether you measure the advantage as a time to solve or as an energy to solve,” said Johansson. “Solving the problem requires an exchange between several disciplines. Otherwise, critical considerations and potential pitfalls will be overlooked in building the supercomputing and quantum computing infrastructure.

“A joint effort of HPC and computer science wizards, experts in quantum computing hardware and software, AI [artificial intelligence] Gurus and domain experts of the specific modeling problem are required. Only then can the stubborn, noisy, imperfect quantum computers be tamed and put to productive use.”

The VTT Technical Research Center of Finland worked with CSC and Aalto University on the Finnish quantum computing infrastructure to establish the connection between the computers.

“The connection uses the secure HTTPS protocol between the endpoints,” Kotovirta said. “Users develop a hybrid algorithm on the LUMI side and submit the job to the LUMI queuing system for execution. Quantum orders are securely forwarded to HELMI via HTTPS and the HELMI backend controls the hardware electronics to perform the actual quantum computation. The result is returned to the calling program on the LUMI side. The program could then combine the result with any classical calculation it may have performed. Then it can start the next iteration or show the results to the user.”

Johansson added: “By integrating supercomputing, world-leading AI capacity and quantum acceleration, we have bundled all the necessary components for the upcoming quantum revolution in computing. Now we need to get them to work together seamlessly and efficiently. This is no trivial task and work needs to start immediately to have the machinery ready when the truly powerful quantum computers come to market.”

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The connection between HELMI and LUMI is an important milestone on the way to industrial-grade quantum computing in Finland. Two other major milestones are in the works – VTT is currently developing a 20-qubit quantum computer and already has plans to upgrade to 50 qubits in 2024.

Finland is now one of the few countries in the world to have linked a quantum computer and a supercomputer – and the first in Europe. Users from Finnish universities and research institutes will now have access to the new infrastructure to experiment with quantum computing.