The battle for top-dog status in the emerging field of quantum computing took a strange turn last week when rivals IBM and Google both made important and—in Google’s case—mysterious claims about where they are in a quest that most experts believe is still at least a decade away from the finish line.
IBM announced that it will add its 14th quantum computer to its fleet in October. This will be a new 53-qubit model which it says is the single largest universal quantum system made available for external access in the industry to date. IBM also announced the opening of the first IBM Quantum Computation Center in Poughkeepsie, NY, bringing the number of quantum computing systems available online via its IBM Q Experience platform to 10, with an additional four systems scheduled to come online in the next month.
Meanwhile, Google scientists posted, and then quickly took down, a research paper on a NASA web site that claimed that it had achieved a major milestone called “quantum supremacy,” meaning it can solve problems that even the most powerful conventional supercomputers cannot.
According to a report in the FT, the report claimed that Google’s 72-qubit quantum computer chip Bristlecone, introduced in March 2018, performed a calculation in just over 3 minutes that would take 10,000 years on IBM's Summit, the world's most powerful commercial computer. The report reportedly said:
To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.
If true, this would be a very big step in the advance toward quantum computing, but it appears that the researchers may have gotten a little too far out over their skis and the post was quickly taken down. Since then, Google PR and marketing has refused to discuss the topic and the paper has gone the way of the whistleblower’s account of President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president. In a puff of digital smoke.
What’s to be done about quantum
Unlike traditional computers which use a stream of electrical or optical pulses called bits, representing 1s or 0s, quantum computers use qubits, which are typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. At the quantum level, qubits can represent thousands of possible combinations of 1 and 0—a quality called superposition of states that allows them to solve problems by simultaneously considering numerous possibilities. A connected group of qubits can provide far more processing power than the same number of binary bits.
Generating and managing qubits is an engineering challenge. IBM, for example, uses superconducting circuits cooled to temperatures colder than deep space.
That exhausts my technical understanding of the process but I hope we can agree that quantum computing has enormous implications for the future of enterprise computing.
IBM takes the communal approach
Big Blue has taken an open and communal approach to the development of quantum computing and it seems to be paying off. In 2016, it built and put the IBM Q experience prototype 5-qubit machine in the cloud, and made it available for the world from which to learn, use, and explore. Said Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, in a press release:
Our strategy, since we put the very first quantum computer on the cloud in 2016, was to move quantum computing beyond isolated lab experiments conducted by a handful of organizations, into the hands of tens of thousands of users. In order to empower an emerging quantum community of educators, researchers, and software developers that share a passion for revolutionizing computing, we have built multiple generations of quantum processor platforms that we integrate into high-availability quantum systems. We iterate and improve the performance of our systems multiple times per year and this new 53-qubit system now incorporates the next family of processors on our roadmap.
The world has responded enthusiastically to IBM’s initiative. Its quantum community now has more than 150,000 registered users and nearly 80 commercial clients, academic institutions and research laboratories to advance quantum computing and explore practical applications. IBM says users have run more than 14 million experiments on IBM's quantum computers through the cloud since 2016, and published more than 200 scientific papers. Added Gil:
The new quantum system is important because it offers a larger lattice and gives users the ability to run even more complex entanglement and connectivity experiments...The single goal of this passionate community is to achieve what we call Quantum Advantage, producing powerful quantum systems that can ultimately solve real problems facing our clients that are not viable using today’s classical methods alone, and by making even more IBM Quantum systems available we believe that goal is achievable.
The reference to lattice cryptography is key because quantum computing can, according to an IBM paper, use "high dimensional geometric structures to hide information, creating problems that are considered impossible to solve without the key," even by other quantum computers. That means data and information could stay hidden underneath unsolvable math problems.
Advocates believe quantum computing could open the door to future scientific discoveries such as new medicines and materials, vast improvements in the optimization of supply chains, and new ways to model financial data to make better investments. An IBM scientific paper points to quantum’s utility in drug discovery:
Drug discovery is a promising area of application that will find a number of uses for these new machines. As a prominent example, quantum simulation will enable faster and more accurate characterizations of molecular systems than existing quantum chemistry methods. Furthermore, algorithmic developments in quantum machine learning offer interesting alternatives to classical machine learning techniques, which may also be useful for the biochemical efforts involved in early phases of drug discovery.
For all the kerfuffle and analyst excitement, we are some distance away from a quantum advantage.
Most experts believe the first quantum computer that can do the miraculous things its advocates promise is still a decade off but that hasn’t stopped IBM, Microsoft, Google, AT&T, and other heavyweights from pressing ahead in a race that represents the next Mt. Everest of computing challenges. As with the sudden disappearance of claims of 'supremacy,' keep on the lookout for more strange and mysterious turns before we get there.