Engineers have been talking about quantum computing—the ability to do computing on bits that show quantum entanglement and thus can potentially be on and off at the same time—for decades. In recent years, that promise has gotten closer to reality as a result of the development of quantum annealing systems like those manufactured by D-Wave, the general purpose quantum processors being developed by companies such as IBM and Intel, and attempts to create new programming languages designed for quantum computing.

At CES earlier this month, Intel announced it had a system with 49 qubits—or bits that have existed in a quantum state—in a partnership with Netherlands-based Qutech. This new system, called Tangle Lake, is a big step up from just two months ago, when the company announced a 17-qubit system.

But some were more interested to see IBM’s display of its quantum computing progress, as the company had recently announced a 50-qubit system, and perhaps more importantly, has some general quantum computing devices that its customers can actually use.

IBM Research Labs

IBM Research’s Jeff Welser who helped design this 50 Qubit prototype describes how it works. Source PC Magazine.

What’s actually available to developers and researchers right now is a 16-qubit version of the machine that is accessible through a website, as well as a 20-qubit version that specific customers can use, including partners such as JSR and Hitachi Metals. These systems are actually housed at IBM’s research facility in Yorktown Heights, NY. The 50-qubit version is expected to be available to partners later this year.

It’s not only the number of qubits that matters, Welser said, but the amount of time the system is in “coherence” to generate results. In practice, he said, you run the same calculations multiple times and average the results. The combination of the number of qubits, the number of simultaneous entanglements, and the error rate creates the “quantum volume” that is really important for solving problems.

Welser claimed that with a 50-100 qubit system, users will be able to do things that aren’t possible with conventional computers.


Quantum computing is not the kind of thing that will impact most organizations for another few years, but the presentation at CES offered a fascinating glimpse into some specific applications that will shortly be possible, as well as a possible future for more general computing.

Welser said the first real application is likely to be material analysis using quantum chemistry, and in particular the simulation of different kinds of polymers and new alloys. That’s because you can simulate weight, strength, and other properties, which was previously an effort that involved a lot of trial and error. Quantum computers excel in this area because they can untangle the complexities of molecular and chemical interactions. 

Other possible applications for systems with limited numbers of qubits include deep learning, because error correction isn’t as important.

You often hear about how quantum computing can break many of today’s encryption algorithms. Welser acknowledges that may be the case, but said you’d need a million-qubit system to do so, meaning this won’t be a real problem for many years. (In the meantime, lots of organizations are working on deploying algorithms that won’t be affected; the hope is that these new algorithms will be in place before the quantum computers are ready.)

Ultimately, as was demonstrated at CES 2018, quantum computing won’t replace our everyday laptops and smart phones but it’s capacity to solve complex problems will open up a whole universe of information, transforming our view on the world and the way we navigate it.

IBMQ is Global

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IBM’s Q Research has gone global: 12 labs on six continents are collaboration hubs where more than 3,000 researchers cross-pollinate ideas that lead to major breakthroughs in quantum computing.

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Reference: PC Magazine