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IBM Opens Commercial Access To Quantum Computing

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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IBM has become the first company to begin building a commercial programme around early-stage general-purpose quantum computers

IBM has launched a programme aimed at commercialising quantum computing, in an industry first that will see the company giving companies access to the emerging technology to carry out their own experiments and begin to learn how to program industrial applications for it.

The scheme, called IBM Q, also has potential benefits for IBM, which wants to create an ecosystem of partners and programming tools around its future quantum computers.
Program code on a monitor © alexskopje - Fotolia

Exponential power boost

In the quantum computing field, which aims to make use of quantum effects to build computers able to handle problems exponentially more complex than those that can be solved by today’s machines, IBM is competing with the likes of Microsoft and Google, both of which have substantial investments in the field.

No general-purpose quantum computers exist today outside of laboratories but IBM said its commercialisation programme is based on the expectation that the first practical systems will be available within the next few years.

While it didn’t make any specific predictions, the company said it thinks participants in the programme might be able to access systems with 50 quantum bits, or qubits – the minimum thought to be needed for a workable quantum computer – within the next two or three years.

Qubits make use of an effect called superpositioning, in which electrons can simultaneously exist in more than one state, to create units of information that can represent both a ‘1’ and a ‘0’ at the same time, by contrast to a binary bit, which can only represent one or the other at any given moment. Quantum computers can in theory make use of the effect to vastly speed up computing processes.

“IBM has invested over decades to growing the field of quantum computing and we are committed to expanding access to quantum systems and their powerful capabilities for the science and business communities,” Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud and director for IBM Research, said on Monday.

He likened IBM Q to the way the company has made its Watson artificial intelligence system available in fields ranging from medicine to automobile research.

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API launch

While the first quantum computers are likely to offer only a slight processing advantage over current systems, IBM said in fields such as financial modelling even a 2 or 3 percent boost could be significant.

Other industries the company is targeting include chemistry, where quantum computers could boost the precision with which molecules’ properties can be predicted for drug and materials discovery, finding efficient paths across supply chain systems, improving artificial intelligence and enhancing the security of data held in cloud data centres.

As well as IBM Q, the company also on Monday announced a new application programming interface (API) for its quantum computing simulator, the Quantum Experience, that allows users to begin building interfaces between existing five-qubit cloud-based systems and existing machines, as well as an updated Quantum Experience simulator modelling circuits with up to 20 qubits.

IBM said it plans to release a full software development kit (SDK) for the Quantum Experience to make it easier to build simple quantum applications in the first half of this year.

The company said since the simulator’s launch last May about 40,000 users from more than 100 countries have run more than 275,000 experiments, resulting in five third-party research papers published in leading journals.

Practical use

Isaac Chuang, professor of physics and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, who has worked with the simulator, said programmes such as IBM’s will be necessary for quantum computing to make its way out of laboratories and into practical applications.

“Unlocking the usefulness of quantum computing will require hands-on experience with real quantum computers,” he said.

Canadian company D-Wave already offers a commercial quantum computing system, which is used by companies including Google, Nasa and defence specialist Lockheed Martin, but that system targets only a narrow range of problems.

By contrast, the systems being developed by IBM, Microsoft and Google are general-purpose computers that would be able to process a wide range of tasks.

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