IBM is Rolling out the World's First Universal 'Quantum Computing' Service

If you build it, they will come.

7 MAR 2017

We're all excited about the potential of quantum computers - devices that will harness strange quantum phenomena to perform calculations far more powerful than anything conventional computers can do today.

Unfortunately, we still don't have a tangible, large-scale quantum computer to freak out over just yet, but IBM is already preparing for a future when we do, by announcing that they're rolling out a universal 'quantum-computing' service later this year.


The service will be called IBM Q, and it will give people access to their early-stage quantum computer over the internet to use as they wish - for a fee.

The big elephant in the room is that, for now, IBM's quantum computer only runs on five qubits, so it's not much faster (if any faster) than a conventional computer.

But their technology is improving all the time. The company has announced it hopes to get to 50 qubits in the next few years, and in the meantime, it's building the online systems and software so that anyone in the world can access the full power of its quantum computer when it's ready. IBM Q is a crucial part of that.

Unlike conventional computers, which use 'bits' of either 1 or 0 to code information, quantum computers use a strange phenomenon known as superposition, which allows an atom to be in both the 1 and 0 position at the same time. These quantum bits, or qubits, give quantum computers far more processing power than traditional computers.

But right now, qubits are hard to make and manipulate, even for more the most high-tech labs. Which is why IBM only has five qubits working together in a computer, despite decades of research. And those qubits have to be cooled to temperatures just above absolute zero in order to function.

Companies such as Google, and multiple university research labs, have also built primitive quantum computers, and Google has even used theirs to simulate a molecule for the first time, showing the potential of this technology as it scales up.


But instead of just focussing on the hardware itself, IBM is also interested in the software around quantum computers, and how to give the public access to them.

"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.

The system builds on the company's Quantum Experience, which was rolled out last year for free to approved researchers. IBM Q will use similar cloud software, but will also be open to businesses - and, more importantly, any programmers and developers who want to start experimenting with writing code for quantum systems.

The goal is to have a functional, commercial, cloud-based service ready to go when a fully realised quantum computer does come online.

"Putting the machine on the cloud is an obvious thing to do," physicist Christopher Monroe from the University of Maryland, who isn't involved with IBM, told Davide Castelvecchi over at Scientific American. "But it takes a lot of work in getting a system to that level."

The challenge is that while, on paper, a five-qubit machine is pretty easy to simulate and program for, real qubits don't quite work that way, because you're working with atoms that can change their behaviour based on environmental conditions

"The real challenge is whether you can make your algorithm work on real hardware that has imperfections," Isaac Chuang, a physicist at MIT who doesn't work with IBM, told Scientific American.

In their announcement, IBM said that in the past few months, more than 40,000 users have already used Quantum Experience to build and run 275,000 test applications, and 15 research papers have been published based off of it so far.

And they predict that in future, the quantum service will become even more useful.

"Quantum computers will deliver solutions to important problems where patterns cannot be seen because the data doesn't exist and the possibilities that you need to explore to get to the answer are too enormous to ever be processed by classical computers," said IBM in its announcement.

There's no word as yet on how much IBM Q will cost to use, or how users will be approved. But we have to admit it'd be pretty cool to be among the first to play around with quantum computing.

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