IBM Research announced it is making quantum computing available to members of the public, who can access and run experiments on IBM’s quantum processor. This has been about 35 years in the making, with perhaps another decade or more to go before IBM can deliver a universal quantum computer.
In a blog post, Dario Gil, vice president of Science and Solutions at IBM Research, related that in 1981, at a conference co-organized by MIT and IBM, the famous physicist Richard Feynman urged the world to build a quantum computer. Today, IBM is offering access to its quantum computing capabilities to anyone.
According to IBM, quantum computing makes use of quantum physics, also called quantum mechanics, to perform new operations on data or operations outside of the standard models of computation.
“The power of the quantum computer is that it is based on a logic that is not limited merely to on-or-off, true-or-false scenarios,” reads a description of the technology on the IBM Research quantum computing site. “Quantum computing has bits, just like any computer. But instead of ones and zeros, quantum bits, or qubits, can represent a one, a zero, or both at once, which is a phenomenon known as superposition. The superposition that occurs in a quantum system is so different to that which occurs in classical systems that it can allow two of these qubits to behave in ways that cannot be explained by the individual components.”
IBM says this is the beginning of the quantum age of computing and the company’s latest advance toward building a universal quantum computer. A universal quantum computer, once built, has the potential to solve problems that are not solvable with today’s classical computers, IBM said. Company researchers have created a quantum processor that users can access via the IBM Cloud onto any desktop or mobile device.
IBM said its cloud-enabled quantum computing platform, called IBM Quantum Experience, will allow users to run algorithms and experiments on the IBM quantum processor. The processor is composed of five superconducting qubits and is housed at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.
The 5-qubit processor represents the latest advancement in IBM’s quantum architecture that can scale to larger quantum systems. It is an approach toward building a universal quantum computer.
A universal quantum computer does not exist today, but IBM envisions medium-sized quantum processors of 50 qubits to 100 qubits to be possible in the next decade, the company said.
However, quantum computing pure-play D-Wave Systems remarked on IBM progress, noting that while IBM’s latest move is a good step forward for IBM’s program, the company itself notes it will take decades or more for a gate-model quantum computer product to develop into a useful product.
“Other organizations have produced quantum processors with a limited number of qubits like IBM’s five qubits, and in fact what IBM announced is similar to other research projects, such as the University of Bristol’s ‘Quantum in the Cloud,’ announced several years ago,” according to a post on D-Wave’s Website. “Meanwhile, D-Wave productized a 128-qubit processor in 2011, and today our third-generation D-Wave 2X has over 1,000 qubits. More significantly, we have also developed the other technology components needed to build a system, not just a research processor.”
IBM Brings Quantum COmputing to the Masses
Gil said IBM’s quantum computing platform is a core initiative within the newly formed IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a consortium that develops and shares breakthrough computing technologies to spur world-changing innovations. Founding members of the Frontiers Institute include Samsung, JSR and Honda.
“Quantum computers are very different from today’s computers, not only in what they look like and are made of, but more importantly in what they can do,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, in a statement. “Quantum computing is becoming a reality and it will extend computation far beyond what is imaginable with today’s computers,” “This moment represents the birth of quantum cloud computing. By giving hands-on access to IBM’s experimental quantum systems, the IBM Quantum Experience will make it easier for researchers and the scientific community to accelerate innovations in the quantum field, and help discover new applications for this technology.”
IBM argues that as Moore’s Law continues to stall, quantum computing could arise as one of the technologies to pick up the slack and help find new discoveries in artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, among other areas.
IBM watcher Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said the IBM quantum computing offering’s 5-qubit size is significant because it provides the quantum processor a bit more stability than a system with fewer qubits would have, and is also small enough that work performed on it can be emulated or cross-checked on a traditional binary system.
“Emulation is critical because the IBM system will be the first actual quantum processor that most researchers have ever been able to access,” King said. “So many of the projects will center on checking the validity and value of their projects.”
That goes to the heart of the second issue that makes IBM’s quantum processor significant, King told eWEEK. “While the company obviously has hopes of profiting from its investments, IBM’s decision to open the system to the public will help to ensure than the benefits of its research impact a far wider audience,” he noted.
Indeed, King said he believes this is the first quantum computing research project from a commercial entity that is open to the public. Nor are private investments likely to be used this way, he argued.
“The highest profile effort I’m aware of—Google’s purchase of a $10 million D-Wave system—is being used for the company’s own purposes,” King said. “That’s completely reasonable: Google put down the cash and should be able to use its investment in any way it chooses. Suffice it to say that IBM has chosen another path.”