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In what must be a world first, IBM has made a five-qubit long quantum processor available to the public to experiment with on its Bluemix cloud. A true universal quantum computer is seen as technology that is some years away, perhaps decades, from being realizable. The science and engineering behind quantum computers is being intensively researched, and to offer new computing horizons not possible with conventional von Neumann-architecture computers, the number of qubits available need to be in the many thousands. However, as an educational tool this real (in contrast with simulated) quantum processor is a breakthrough that will attract educators worldwide.

A glimpse into the challenges of quantum computing

The announcement by IBM has excited the academic community as well as all those interested in quantum computing as an opportunity to give students first-hand experience of a real quantum processor, something which until now has only been available to a select few researchers.

The facility is available through the IBM Quantum Experience, and although it runs on Bluemix, anyone can access it without needing a Bluemix subscription. Because there is only one actual processor currently connected, housed in a dilution refrigerator in IBM’s Yorktown Heights Research lab, there is a queueing system to try it out. Users are given an environment to compose algorithms that will run on the five qubits, test the algorithms on a simulator, and then run them on the real processor, taking about 15 to 30 seconds to run. Effects such as noise will be visible and will demonstrate the challenges that need to be overcome.

The qubits are in a superconducting environment, and are patterned with standard lithographic techniques on silicon wafers. The quantum state is held in a Josephson-junction oscillator circuit, and the states of the qubits are the lowest two energy levels of the circuit. IBM has published papers on the technology (available online through the Cornell University Library).

The three levels of quantum computing capability

Jerry Chow, IBM’s manager for the Experimental Quantum Computing research, has described three levels of quantum capability: quantum annealer, analog quantum, and universal quantum. IBM believes the first level is represented by D-Wave’s quantum machine, also described as an adiabatic quantum computer. The second level is IBM’s current research focus, with the ability to simulate complex quantum interactions, using between 50 and 100 real quantum qubits, and its ultimate goal is to produce level three, a fully functioning universal quantum computer running 100,000 physical qubits.

Quantum computers will offer new forms of computation, as well as accelerate certain classes of calculations that take a very long time on conventional computers. Popular public key cryptographic systems rely on the inordinate length of time taken to factorize large integers, and quantum computers could make these systems obsolete, although they will offer new quantum cryptographic systems.



Michael Azoff, Principal Analyst, IT Infrastructure Solutions

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