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IBM's quantum processor comes out of hiding

Agam Shah | May 4, 2016
The company will open up a 5-qubit quantum processor to everyone through the cloud

A quantum computer for the people isn't just a theoretical dream; IBM is trying to make it a reality.

IBM has built a quantum processor with five qubits, or quantum bits. Even better, IBM isn't hiding the quantum processor in its labs -- it will be accessible through the cloud for the public to run experiments and test applications.

The goal is to unwrap decades-old mysteries around quantum computers and let people play with the hardware, said Jay Gambetta, manager of quantum computing theory and information at IBM.

IBM's qubit processor is significant because it'll be the first quantum hardware accessible to the public, even if only through the cloud. Users will be able to work with qubits, study tutorials, and run simulations, Gambetta said. 

A quantum computer is already available from D-Wave, but it is being used by just a handful of organizations like Google, Lockheed Martin, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. D-Wave's system, based on quantum annealing, is ideal for specific tasks while IBM's quantum hardware is designed to run more varied tasks. 

Access to the 5-qubit processor will be available soon, though Gambetta couldn't provide further details. It's possible that access will be provided for free, he said. Researchers and academics may be the first people to use the processor.

Quantum computers would be significantly faster than today's PCs and servers and will bring radical changes to the way computers are built. Quantum computing would be a way to advance computing even as smaller and more power-efficient chips become more challenging to make.

IBM's 5-qubit processor also is a baby-step toward building the elusive universal quantum computer that researchers have been chasing for decades. A universal quantum computer could perform a huge range of computational tasks.

Two years ago, the company committed $3 billion to rethink conventional computer designs, with research centered around quantum computing and brain-inspired chips like its experimental TrueNorth processor.

IBM hopes to build a quantum computer in the order of 50 to 100 qubits within the next decade. A true universal quantum computer would require somewhere between a million to 100 million qubits, and that could take decades to build, Gambetta said.

The 5-qubit quantum processor is part of a new platform called the IBM Quantum Experience. Access to the quantum processor will be through the IBM Cloud Bluemix platform, which will provide the interface to load applications for crunching on the quantum processor. Bluemix also provides software, services, APIs, and development tools.

IBM's quantum processor is hosted in a special "cryogenic dilution refrigerator," an advanced cooling technique is central to keeping quantum hardware operational. IBM said the processor is stable and reliable thanks to research and engineering advances.

 

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