As we begin to reach the point of diminishing returns for the traditional silicon-based FinFET fabrication process, the hardware giants are inevitably turning their attention to other solutions. The elephant in the room (or the pie in the sky, if you like) is quantum computing. This is an embryonic, expensive and risky technology that could open the gateway to heaps more computing power.

This week at CES 2018, Intel has made another huge leap toward quantum computing, revealing its first 49-qubit superconducting quantum test chip - ‘Tangle Lake’. The name is taken from an Alaskan lake, referring to the extremely cold temperatures required in order to a quantum processor to even function.

It marks a significant improvement in scaling from Intel, who just two months ago unveiled its 17-qubit quantum chip. Qubit is short for Quantum Bit. Unlike ordinary bits, which are either 1 or 0, Qubits can be both 1 and 0 states at the same time. If that’s blowing your mind a little bit, be sure to check out Shaheryar’s excellent piece on Everything You Need to Know About Quantum Computing.

The theoretical end goal of quantum computing is in creating computers that run many times faster than they can today. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said he expects quantum computing to solve in moments what it takes today’s supercomputers years of months to solve. However, we have a long way to go yet. While Intel’s 49-qubit cheap is a remarkable leap forward, Intel estimates its quantum chips will need to be at least 1 million qubits if it wants to become commercially viable.

“In the quest to deliver a commercially viable quantum computing system, it’s anyone’s game,” said Mike Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs. “We expect it will be five to seven years before the industry gets to tackling engineering-scale problems, and it will likely require 1 million or more qubits to achieve commercial relevance.”

Aside from greater qubits, Intel’s other concern is getting quantum chips to run stably at higher temperatures. At the moment quantum chips need to run at close to absolute zero, or -273C, which obviously imposes significant costs and setup difficulties, particularly in terms of commercial use.