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IBM creates IBM Q to sell quantum computers

IBM has started programming an API for their quantum computers. (Source: IBM)
IBM has started programming an API for their quantum computers. (Source: IBM)
Quantum computing may be years off, but IBM thinks the technology has come far enough to begin programming and applying quantum computers. Big Blue plans to start programming a new API for the machines.

When they’re not busy spelling their name in xenon atoms and trouncing geniuses at Jeopardy, IBM is pushing the limits of computing power for business, scientists, and governments around the world. Big Blue is constantly focused on the bleeding edge of technology, and right now that focus is aimed squarely at quantum computing. To that effect, IBM has recently established a new division (dubbed “IBM Q”) to further develop quantum computers for commercial sale.

The idea of quantum computing goes back about 35 years but has sat on the back burner as classical computing rose in popularity. While Moore’s Law (which states, roughly, that computing power doubles every 18 months) has held true over the past few decades, we’ve recently seen a drop in the progression of traditional computing power. Computers today are only marginally better than last year’s models, giving some credence to the belief that Moore’s Law is starting to break down. If this trend continues, computers as we know them won’t be able to solve the complex problems found in fields like AI and data encryption for a long time. Enter quantum computing.

Let’s break it down: Traditional computers parse and calculate data as “bits.” Each bit can be a 1 or a 0, akin to a switch being flipped on or off. The power of today’s computers is limited by the number of bits they can process and manipulate each second. A bit (or string of bits) can only be in one state at a time, meaning that a line of code can only hold one state of information until it’s processed, or changed, to hold another state of information.

While traditional computers operate on bits, quantum computers operate on qubits. Qubits are strange and still not fully understood. As we know them now, they operate on the properties of quantum mechanics and can thus produce some very strange results. For instance, a single qubit can hold two states of information at the same time. This is due to the quantum property of superposition. Thanks to superposition (and another property known as “quantum entanglement”), a particle can be in multiple states at the same time. The same is true for qubits: a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Therefore, two qubits can store four states of data at the same time, three qubits can store eight states of data at the same time, and so on. Theoretically (as we understand them now), n qubits can hold 2n states of data, all at the same time. This illustration is a simplified explanation; the reality of quantum computing is much more complex.

But you can still see how useful quantum computers can be in different settings. Think about all the predictive work that goes into weather forecasting. While traditional computers must crunch out several probabilistic states, one at a time, and combine them into a cohesive and understandable output, qubits could feasibly compile these probability sets at the same time. This could also have uses in other tasks that are incredibly difficult for computers, especially realms that require creative thought and several factors to be considered all at once. Think AI, financial forecasting, and encryption. IBM is also looking at drug and materials research and supply chain logistics. These problems could all be handled easily by a quantum computer.

Don’t bet on seeing one soon, though. While IBM has founded IBM Q and (per Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems) sees the division “working in concert with our portfolio of classical high-performance systems to address problems that are currently unsolvable, but hold tremendous untapped value,” our current understanding of quantum computing is still insufficient. Many believe that we are still at least a decade out from seeing the first quantum computers, but this new push by IBM may bump that time frame up. Who knows? At the pace technology seems to jerk forward these days, we might have quantum computers in our pockets within the next few decades (or sooner).


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Sam Medley, 2017-03- 6 (Update: 2017-03- 7)