IBM's new program includes a 50-qubit quantum computer

IBM Q will offer quantum computing services to customers

IBM quantum processor system
IBM

A new quantum computing program called Q at IBM promises more than 50 qubits, which should push conventional computers one step closer to the trash heap.

IBM Q will deliver paid quantum computing consulting and services to users. It's much like IBM's Watson, which uses conventional computers, but Q uses quantum computers.

The 50-qubit quantum computer will be 10 times larger than a 5-qubit system already housed by IBM. And the new system will be able to do things that conventional computers can't do: It will accelerate drug discovery and make scientific discoveries, IBM said.

Quantum computers are radically different than conventional PCs and could ultimately replace today's PCs and servers. They offer a way to advance computing as today's classic computer reach their limit, and as making smaller chips becomes challenging.

IBM is building faster quantum computers to show such systems aren't theoretical dreams. IBM's ultimate goal is to build a universal quantum computer with thousands of qubits to run a wide range of computing tasks.

The 50-bit quantum computer is a practical enough size to develop algorithms and start solving some real problems, said Scott Crowder, vice president and chief technology officer of quantum computing for IBM Systems.

Faster computers will also help discover new uses for quantum computers that were previously unexplored, Crowder said.

Quantum computers are good at solving problems in areas like drug discovery and molecular structures, where different angles to a particular problem, including those not immediately obvious, need to be taken into account, Crowder said.

 It's difficult to tackle tasks like drug discovery and molecular-composition analysis on today's PCs and servers because of the amount of compute power needed. Today's computers are good at taking big sets of data and finding answers within them, Crowder said.

It seems a bit early for IBM to launch a commercial service for quantum computing, which is still being researched. But the response to its 5-qubit quantum computer was amazing since it was launched last May, with about 40,000 users, more than 200,000 experiments, and 15 research papers written by the external community, said Jerry Chow, manager for IBM's experimental quantum computing group.

The smaller quantum computer paved the way to expand the program and launch IBM Q. The bigger quantum computers being built will be hosted by IBM because the machines require special cabinets and cooling mechanisms. IBM will work with early industry partners to help build the application use cases and the science to stabilize the computers.

IBM's current 5-bit quantum computer is being offered through the public cloud as part of a program called the Quantum Experience, which will remain available for free.

Building quantum computers has been a big challenge partly because the systems are highly unstable. Today’s computers store bits in the form of a one or zero, while qubits can achieve various states, like holding a one and a zero simultaneously. This technique is called superposition and gives quantum computers the ability to vastly increase processing power over traditional forms of computing.

But qubits can be notoriously fragile and could be upset by something as simple as electromagnetic radiation, which could wreck computational cycles. Quantum computers need to be stabilized so they can be used for tasks like genome sequencing, which needs the qubits to be reliable over a sustained period of time.

IBM researchers have been working on the problems related to handling qubits, and the quantum computer will prove their success, company officials said. The focus for the 50-bit quantum computers will be on bringing them stability, including connectivity between qubits, as well as the gating and error correction.

In addition to IBM, quantum computers are also being pursued by Intel and Microsoft, which is basing its research on a particle that exists only in theory. D-Wave offers a specialized US $15 million, 2000-qubit quantum annealing computer called 2000Q, which will ultimately be offered via the cloud.

IBM has also developed a new type of computer based on brain-inspired chips like its experimental TrueNorth processor. The NS16e has come a long way and could also ultimately be offered via a specialized program. Those computers are designed more for tasks like machine learning, which today's computers can handle.

IBM will also offer SDKs (software development kits) and APIs (application programming interfaces) so code written using popular programming interfaces can be exported to quantum computers.

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