At the CES technology event in Las Vegas at the beginning of the month, IBM unveiled their latest quantum computer, capable of handling 50 qubits (quantum bits). This breakthrough puts IBM on the cutting edge of quantum computing research, as a 50-qubit machine is so far the largest and most powerful quantum computer ever built.
IBM has been making significant advances in quantum computing ever since their researchers helped to create the field of quantum information processing in the 1970s. The organisation has also been leading the way introducing useful quantum systems, first by making quantum computers accessible through the cloud (March 2017) and developing relevant software tools, and second by showing how even a simple machine can do useful work in fields like chemistry. Last week IBM also announced an upgrade to its quantum cloud software system. “We’re at world record pace. But we’ve got to make sure non-physicists can use this,” claims Dario Gil, who directs AI and quantum computing at IBM.
But although they are making extraordinary gains, IBM aren’t the only ones in on the race to build working quantum computers for commercial use. Google and Intel are also developing their own quantum computing systems, and San Francisco-based startup Rigetti wants to revolutionize the field. Meanwhile, Canadian quantum computing company D-Wave has already developed a couple of quantum computers which have been used by NASA and Google.
IBM’s 50 Qubit Quantum Computer
In the video above, Jeff Weiser of IBM Research explains how the 50-qubit quantum prototype works
Jeff Chow who leads research for IBM’s Experimental Quantum Computing division, also believes a main area for industrial application will be in chemistry. “The real potential is in designing things like drugs and understanding objects like proteins and different compounds that are essential for life.”
“Caffeine is already a molecule that is so large that essentially there is no a computer in the world that can simulate it. The interesting this is that the physics that governs how the molecule is put together is essentially quantum. Moreover, if the the molecule follows quantum mechanics then it would be silly to simulate it with conventional computing which uses bits.” Quantum computing can be a launch pad for new innovations.
But Slow down on the hype
Some claim that IBM’s big announcement should be treated cautiously. Andrew Childs, a professor at the University of Maryland, points out that IBM has not published details of its system in a peer-reviewed journal. “IBM’s team is fantastic and it’s clear they’re serious about this, but without looking at the details it’s hard to comment,” he states. Childs says the larger number of qubits does not necessarily translate to a leap in computational capability. “Those qubits might be noisy, and there could be issues with how well connected they are,” he argues.
Furthermore, IBM’s Chow also drops in an analogy to explain why getting to the next stage is such a challenge. “One of the main difficulties of making a quantum computer is keeping quantum information alive. Trying to preserve that quantum information right now is like doing something impossible”.
“Like trying to balance an egg on the tip of a pencil”
“How you accurately keep it in its place and preserve it is one of the aspects we work on in terms of improving the technology to make this happen.”
Therefore, although we can see clear challenges ahead, the road to the quantum computing era is being rapidly laid before us and many are joining the race.