Tonight I had the pleasure of visiting Rigetti Computing, a quantum computing start-up in Berkeley, for a Lisp at the Frontier of Computation meet-up. While I'm always happy to attend a talk on Lisp, this time I (and I'm sure many other attendees) was drawn more by the opportunity to see quantum computing's outside of academia.

The night began with a brief tour of the facilities. Whereas most software startups are little more than a collection of desks, chairs, and Macbooks, half of Rigetti's premises is dedicated to serious hardware, the most significant of which are several "fridges" that cool their custom-made1 quantum processors (QPUs) to 10 milikelvins. It's all very physics-y and impressive–"SCIENCE!", it screams in all caps. We were also shown a quantum processor, which looks more or less like a standard chip, except for the distinct "sunburst" shapes that indicate qubits.

The talk by Robert Smith, director of software at Rigetti, was about using Common Lisp (CL) to build a quantum computing VM (QVM) for Quil2, the in-house quantum instruction language3. At this time, real processor time is very valuable, so a good VM is absolutely necessary for testing. Currently, the QVM is even able to simulate more qubits than the real chips, though performance degrades exponentially w.r.t. the number of qubits4.

Motivations for using CL include the usual strengths of Lisp, such as expressiveness and rapid iteration, as well as some SBCL specifics, particularly performance. Difficulties include a lack of good libraries (particularly for linear algebra) and no interest on the part of SBCL maintainers to improve performance in key areas5.

A few more points from my chat with Robert after the talk:

  • Quantum processors are not better for every problem; a general-purpose computer will use the QPU for certain tasks, just like GPUs.
  • There's no scientific barrier to quantum computing now6; it's an engineering (particularly fabrication) problem
  • Adding qubits is not very difficult; within 5 years, 100's of qubits is possible.
    • However, using Shor's algorithm7 to crack today's cryptographic security would require 10,000's of qubits, which is still a ways off!
  • D-Wave, another quantum computing company, does a more limited sort of computing called quantum annealing
    • Interestingly, D-Wave's also known to use CL, though we don't know for which purposes
  • Nielsen and Chuang's Quantum Computation and Quantum Information is the recommended book for learning about quantum computing

All in all, this was a very enlightening night. While quantum computing is quite beyond my grasp at the moment, I'm excited to think where it may be in a decade.



The fab used to be on-premise, but later moved to Fremont.


See paper.


As most programmers have a great fear of Lisp, high-level programs are written in Python via PyQuil, then compiled down to Quil instructions for running on the QVM.


Beyond 30 or so qubits, the VM becomes unbearably slow, even with 2 TB of RAM.


Not even for pay! This lack of enterprise support is cited as one reason a proprietary CL may be used in the future.


At least not for Rigetti's cloud-based model. Putting a quantum processor in a phone would require new materials with much higher superconductivity temperatures.


Shor's algorithm is a quantum algorithm for integer factorization that runs in polynomial time.