A lot has been written about IBM’s efforts in such emerging technologies as artificial intelligence, machine learning, analytics, blockchain and the cloud, much of it part of the company’s larger strategy around what officials call “cognitive computing.”
But IBM is also making major investments in quantum computing, an area that has gotten a lot of attention for the tech giant in the past several months.
IBM has continued to make strides in this area throughout 2017—for example, the company in March rolled out IBM Q, a quantum computing environment accessible via the IBM Cloud platform, and an API that enables Quantum Experience users to run sophisticated experiments in the cloud-based quantum environment.
In November, IBM announced that the first Q systems available online will have a 20-qubit processor and that engineers will upgrade the systems throughout 2018. They also said IBM had created an operational prototype 50-qubit processor, which will run the next generation of IBM Q systems.
Earlier this month, IBM unveiled the first dozen businesses that will have early access to the vendor’s IBM Q quantum computing system. Those customers include financial services companies JPMorgan and Chase, auto makers Daimler AG and Honda, Samsung and the Oak Ridge National Lab. The companies are part of IBM’s new IBM Q Network and illustrate the broad customer interest in quantum computing and the ongoing drive to commercialize the technology.
“We are currently in a period of history when we can prepare for a future where quantum computers offer a clear computational advantage for solving important problems that are currently intractable,” Dario Gil, vice president of AI and IBM Q at IBM Research, wrote in a post on the company blog when the partner companies were announced.
“This is the ‘quantum ready’ phase, he wrote."We all know the reasons why quantum computing has attracted so much excitement. Despite the enormous progress we’ve achieved as a society with ‘classical’ computers, they simply don’t have enough memory or processing power to solve historically intractable problems. Quantum computers, working with classical computers via the cloud, could be the answer for at least some of these,” Gil wrote.
The IBM Q Network extends IBM’s “sphere of collaborators with whom we will advance quantum computing—from exploring practical business and scientific applications, to developing the tools needed to make the systems more accessible as they grow in power and performance,” Gil wrote.
Quantum computing has been talked about for decades, promising systems that are multiple times faster than current supercomputers.
Organizations for several years have been relying on faster CPUs and accelerators including Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) from Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) like those from Intel and Xilinx, and faster interconnects to accelerate workloads that leverage AI, machine learning and neuromorphic computing (systems that can mimic the functions of the brain).
At the heart of quantum computing are qubits. Current systems use bits that hold values of 0 or 1. But qubits—or quantum bits—can be 0 and 1 at the same time, which opens up the possibility of systems running through millions of calculations simultaneously and at high speeds and running workloads that are far too complex for today’s systems.
A growing number of top-tier tech vendors including Google, Microsoft and Intel are pushing quantum computing initiatives while smaller vendors such as Rigetti Computing also are gaining traction. D-Wave, which Google has invested in, offers commercial quantum computers, though critics say they aren’t true quantum systems.
Most recently, Microsoft earlier in December announced a free preview of its Quantum Development Kit, while Intel in October unveiled a 17-qubit processor. Rigetti this month introduced Q19, a 19-qubit quantum processor.
Homeland Security Research analysts said in a report earlier this year that the quantum computing market will hit $10.7 billion by 2024, with $8.45 billion coming from products sales and services and $2.25 billion from government-funded programs.
However, it won’t be an easy lift. There are plenty of challenges in quantum computing. For example, qubits are fragile and while they may be entangled—sharing the same state with two or more qubits—they can revert back to one of the two states if affected by an external factor, such as quantum noise.
That reversion can cause problems, such as data loss. Intel officials said that to reduce the risk, qubits need to operate in extremely cold environments—about 20 millikelvin, or 250 times colder than deep space—which places critical requirements on how qubits are packaged.
IBM’s Gil in his blog post noted the work that still needs to be done in quantum computing, but pointed to the IBM Q systems as examples of what is being achieved now.
“It is true that much of what you have read about the promise of quantum computers will require fault-tolerance, a goal likely still a decade or more away,” he wrote. “But we believe that the initial signs of a computational advantage will be achievable with nearer-term approximate quantum computers, which are now emerging.”