Take Note: IBM's Next Big Thing is Quantum Computing

By Doug Mohney March 10, 2017

For a long time, quantum computing has been more science fair project than production-grade technology.  IBM this week put out a roadmap to move quantum into the real world and we all need to take note.  Previous IBM “Get on board” efforts over the years include the Internet, open source, blockchain, and a big push on AI through its Watson project. 

“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,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud and director for IBM Research. “Following Watson and blockchain, we believe that quantum computing will provide the next powerful set of services delivered via the IBM Cloud platform, and promises to be the next major technology that has the potential to drive a new era of innovation across industries.”

Under its IBM Q roadmap, the company will build commercial quantum computing systems with around 50 qubits (quantum bits) in a few years.  Developers and programmers can dive into building code for quantum computers today with IBM's Quantum Experience API. The API has access to 5 qubits to IBM's operational quantum computer, while an upgraded simulator can model circuits with up to 20 qubits.  Sometime between now and the end of June, IBM plans to release a full Software Development Kit (SDK) for users to build simple quantum applications and software programs.

IBM is touting its Quantum Experience as a way for anyone to connect to IBM's quantum processor via (IBM's) cloud to run algorithms and experiences, work with individual quantum bits, and explore tutorials and simulations on what might be possible with quantum computing.

Quantum computing is very much unlike the classic models of zero and one, on/off hardware the world has been working for decades, since a qubit can be both “on” and “off” at the same time in the mind-bending world of quantum physics.  Compute power is measured in “Quantum Volume,” taking into account the number of qubits, quality of quantum operations, qubit connectivity and parallelism.

IBM has already developed techniques to apply the unique properties of quantum computing to complex problems that just don't work on classic computing systems.  Simulating molecules for chemistry is one area IBM has focused on, starting with “simple” ones and moving to scale to more complex ones.

Other areas identified for quantum computing applications include drug and materials discoveries, supply chain and logistics optimization (you can bet Amazon, FedEx, and UPS are all interested), financial services modeling, enhancing AI, and cloud security.

Similar to the commercialization of Watson for AI, IBM is working to improve all parts of the quantum computing ecosystem.  Engineering will work to make more and better qubits while software tools and APIs provide access both to IBM's own world-class engineers and third-parties looking to develop and evolve applications.

Moving quantum computing into mainstream IT isn't happening overnight, but IBM has it on a track for it to become a significant enterprise tool within the next five years.  That's roughly how long it took for Watson to go from winning “Jeopardy” to being featured in prime-time commercials.  If you missed the AI wave, you might want to check out the quantum surge happening now.




Edited by Alicia Young

Contributing Editor

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