Aliro Technologies: Connecting classical with Quantum
Something refreshing about the quantum computing industry is its diversity of backgrounds. CEOs, investors and senior programmers and engineers commonly migrate - or seem to fall into - quantum from other fields, pulled to QC companies by their promise, novelty or the need to be at what they see as technology’s bleeding edge. Jim Ricotta’s CV includes CEO and investor positions, mostly in tech (and one barbecue restaurant in Boston). It’s typically atypical of CEOs in the quantum computing business: in Ricotta’s case a string of successful tech companies with a focus on middleware, providing software that connects people with problems to companies and machines with solutions. But what jumps most immediately off the page - obscuring even the rib joint - is Ricotta’s Emmy Award.
“I shared the technical Emmy with a team,” Ricotta qualifies, quickly, modestly and in a manner that only hints that the subject may have been raised before. “I was lucky enough to join a start-up called Avid Technology in the early 90’s, and we invented digital video editing. Before that, video editing was done with tape machines copying back and forth. We digitized the tape and put it on computers. It sounds trivial nowadays, but when we told people, ‘We do for video editing what word processors did for tech’, they didn’t believe us. Our team won the Emmy for the development of the Avid Media Composer and that product went on to change video and eventually the whole film industry... it dominated the field for about 20 years.”
The Emmy win for Outstanding Engineering Development, back in 1993, is still a fond memory of Ricotta’s (George Lucas was a big fan and the award was presented by Gina Davis, he says). It’s also a handy milestone for charting his career: in the years since, Ricotta has moved from working in tech start-ups to working with them as an investor and CEO. The throughline is that desire to be at the forefront: “I’ve jumped into new fields pretty early - and been fortunate most of them have taken off.” With Aliro Technologies’ receipt of $2.7 million in seed funding in September 2019, that desire is continuing to produce results.
Founded by Harvard professor Prineah Narang, Aliro is a spin-out of the university’s Quantum Information Sciences Lab. She felt, Ricotta says that “quantum computing was missing a catalyst”. A commonly reported challenge on the business side of quantum computing is moving users of high-performance classical computing towards quantum hardware. Aliro’s goal is to remove the technical barriers to entry presented by QC architecture so that programmers can write algorithms in their native programming languages and have their problems translated to run on a range of different quantum computers, seamlessly. With four previous CEO positions, Ricotta and Narang were connected by a venture capitalist friend. When he describes the talent of the team, he still sounds slightly dazzled. He came aboard as Aliro’s CEO in mid-2019.
“The general problem at the highest level is that quantum computers are too hard to use right now,” Ricotta says. “There are physical differences in the technology, there’s lots of noise, lots of errors compared to what programmers are used to on classical computers. So, we think the opportunity is to build a software platform that insulates software development from all these machines. I use the term, ‘Write once, run anywhere’ - a term I borrowed from Sun Microsystems, when I worked there on Java. That’s the idea: software developers have a problem they’re trying to solve and they don’t want to have to worry about whether calculations are running on an ion trap or a superconducting QC - they just want their programs to run.”
Ricotta compares Aliro to Amazon Web Services. Programmers will come to the Aliro portal with their computations, and the Aliro software will show them which QCs are online and available. Clients will get a cost and time estimate for the problems they want to solve, as well as access to back-end optimisation and debugging. It will be, Ricotta says, “a one-stop shop for quantum”.
But putting yourself forward as middlemen for quantum computing raises some obvious questions - most pertinently, how one finds customers interested in switching from high-performance classical computing to a new platform which, today, is unfinished and in constant developmental flux. Everybody involved in quantum computing has their own ideas about what quantum’s breakthrough moment will be and which industry will be the first to feel the sea change. But If your role in the industry is connecting people to the hardware, you need predictions, not speculations, about where this first wave of clients is going to come from. Ricotta is candid: that’s a challenge with a wide-net solution.
“I think about that a lot,” he says. “It’s still pretty hard to guess: a lot of people like to talk about chemistry because it’s ‘quantum mechanical’ - but it also requires more qubits. So, it might be something like solving optimization problems: when you’re trying to get ten million packages to ten million people everyday on thousands of trucks and aeroplanes, that kind of stuff. Also: machine learning, which many companies are doing more and more either in the consumer space or in enterprise. And certain types of machine learning, like neural networks, seem [best suited] to quantum computers. But it’s really hard to predict."
“I think our clients are going to come from a variety of industries, but the common thread is that they’re users of high-performance computing today... Most big companies use HPC if they’re in pharma or if they have optimization problems or are doing machine learning, and those people have already moved from CPUs to GPUs, and now if they can get an advantage from quantum they’re going to want to move from GPUs to quantum computers. So our goal as a company is: you bring your code to us, whatever it is, and we help you turn it into a quantum circuit and then pick the best machine and interpret the results. That’s the ultimate goal; that’s our vision.”
As for the issue of designing for quantum hardware that’s still in development, it’s one that can be mitigated by working closely with big names in the industry, setting the groundwork for future partnerships now and following their progress as they race to hit milestones first. Aliro is, says Ricotta, in discussion “with most of the players that people know about,” with further details still firmly TBA. But he also makes the general point that when Google,IBM, Microsoft et al. announce a new goal for quantum they put, to some degree, their reputations in the industry on the line - just as the US government has with the $1.6 billion pledged to support quantum through the National Quantum Initiative. Making inferences from these announcements is not an exact science, but it can be done.
“One advantage that the US has is that we have a lot of private funding for start-ups,” he says. “Some of it comes from venture capital firms, of which we have many, and some of it comes from the big companies - Amazon, Microsoft and Google all have their own investment arms and invest in start-ups. It’s also good that we have the National Quantum Initiative, because it’s good to see that our federal government recognizes the importance of quantum computing and is willing to put some money into research. That will help create more centres of excellence and those become magnets for academia, so we can produce more engineers and computer scientists who know quantum.”
Tying those threads together, Ricotta predicts that all of today’s major cloud providers will be offering quantum computing as a service in the next five years, and that Aliro will be responsible for making many of the introductions between those companies and classical computer scientists and programmers. Its software - currently in Alpha with a Beta hopefully ready for Quantum.Tech 2020 - will be available sometime in the next 12 months.
“I think that in a year from now we’ll have a commercial software product available in the cloud and we’ll have users on there who are accessing quantum computers of different types,” he says. “If anything, things are happening more quickly in this space than I thought they would back in July and August,” he says, referencing the back-and-forth volleys of announcements from Google, Microsoft and Amazon. “There’s going to be a lot of experimentation among the users of high-performance computing, and they’re going to be moving different parts of their workload from classical to quantum, and trying out the different quantum machines."
“All of that,” he says, “plays to our strengths.”
For more information, email Amit Das directly on firstname.lastname@example.org
To visit the Aliro Technologies website: https://www.aliroquantum.com/