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Amazon, IBM and Microsoft race to bring global access to quantum computing

Quantum computing could help companies without billion-dollar budgets design superbatteries, create complex chemicals and understand the universe.

IBM System One quantum computing

IBM's 50 qubit quantum computer. 

James Martin/CNET

In the heady world of quantum computing, there's a race afoot. Across the globe, tech giants are building their own machines and speeding to make them available to the world as a cloud computing service. In the competition: IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, IonQ, Quantum Circuits, Rigetti Computing and the newest to uncloak its quantum computing plans, Honeywell

They're all competing to show off their nascent ability to tackle a new class of complex computational problems.

If one player does get ahead, it could cash in on a computing revolution the way IBM did with personal computers and Apple did with smartphones. Quantum computers won't displace conventional machines, but they could offer breakthroughs impossible for classical computers to achieve, including developing new materials, cutting city traffic or making a fleet of trucks deliver packages more efficiently.

Analyst firm Tractica expects spending on quantum computing to surge from $260 million in 2020 to $9.1 billion by the end of the decade.

So who's in the lead? "It depends on the week or the month," said Dan Garrison, a technology architect in the quantum practice at consulting firm Accenture. He says the quantum cloud players are all neck-and-neck.

Quantum computing companies have embarked on a multiyear journey to increase the count of qubits, the foundational elements of quantum data processing, and to decrease the error rates that today limit the sophistication of quantum computation. While conventional computers store data as bits that can be either a 0 or a 1, qubits can store a much more complex state that combines both 0 and 1. That design in principle lets quantum computers explore many more solutions to a possible computing problem at once.

But quantum computers are dauntingly expensive and difficult to build and run. Even major efforts have built only a few machines after years of work, and they're typically run by many highly specialized researchers. At least for the foreseeable future, you'll likely tap into them with a cloud computing service.

Quantum cloud competition

Some researchers and companies are getting started today, with 225,000 people trying their hand at quantum computer programming on the IBM Quantum Experience cloud service. And more than 100 companies are paying for its IBM Q premium service, which grants access to the company's experts as well as its hardware.

"We have a fleet of 15 of these computers in the cloud," said Jamie Garcia, IBM's quantum applications leader. They're all currently in New York, but Germany and Japan will each get one after IBM signed agreements with those countries' governments. Big Blue has been showing off a full-scale replica of its IBM Q System One, a 53-qubit quantum computer, to help convince the world the technology is real.

Quantum computing forecast Tractica

Quantum computing revenue is forecast to rise.

Tractica

IBM's replica is a gleaming construction of golden wires and copper electronics boards hung inside a glass dome like some kind of high-tech chandelier. It shows off the brains of IBM's quantum computing hardware, a display backed by a mini data center bathed in futuristic blue light.

Google doesn't have a cloud service yet, but it plans to add one. It mentioned its plans in 2019, when it claimed to have achieved "quantum supremacy," a moment when a quantum computer solves a problem impossible for conventional machines.

Amazon plans to offer quantum computing through the biggest cloud service on the planet, Amazon Web Services. Amazon Braket, now available in an early preview form, will allow researchers and developers to experiment with quantum computers from D-Wave, IonQ and Rigetti. Amazon also is exploring mass-produced quantum computers through its new Center for Quantum Computing.

Also in 2019, Microsoft announced its Azure Quantum cloud service, with plans to offer quantum computers from partners Honeywell, IonQ and QCI in private preview in coming months. Azure is second only to AWS in cloud computing today. Microsoft plans to build its own quantum computing hardware, too.

Rigetti, a quantum computing startup, launched its Quantum Cloud Services in 2018.

The developments will "make it easier for more companies to start to dabble in quantum computing," Accenture's Garrison said. "We're not going to wake up one morning and live in a brave new world of quantum computing."

Google quantum computer

A Google quantum computer.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

What's quantum computing good for?

Though the benefits of quantum computers are mostly theoretical today, Google hopes it'll be able to offer a service to those needing truly random numbers -- a key part of encryption to keep messages and transactions secure.

As computers and algorithms mature and expertise spreads, quantum computer advocates are eager to tackle challenges beyond the reach of classical machines.

"We're using quantum to solve really important parts of problems around chemistry, material science, financial services," IBM's Garcia said.

Quantum chemistry simulations are particularly interesting, since simulating quantum-scale atomic structures is impossible aside from simple molecules, and better tools could deliver real-world benefits like cheaper fertilizer, better electric car batteries and more-powerful solar panels.

Among other examples:

Quantum computing, however, can't speed up every computing problem.

"It's not going to replace classical computers," Accenture's Garrison said. "It's instead going to be used to solve very specific problems."

CES 2020 IBM quantum

Tapping into IBM's replica quantum computer. 

Corinne Reichert/CNET

Quantum challenges

Another enormous obstacle to using quantum computers is simply that people don't know how. That's why part of the quantum cloud race involves tools to create and run quantum software, including IBM's Qiskit, Microsoft's Quantum Development Kit and Google's Cirq tool.

Teaching the next generation of computer scientists about quantum computing is crucial, which is why IBM offers YouTube tutorials and an open-source textbook already in use at universities, and Qiskit is designed to accommodate programming languages developers already know, like Python, Garcia said.

Quantum computers today are typically huge and clunky. The carefully routed, gleaming cables look high tech, but they're actually enormous, hand-built objects in contrast to the mass-produced miniaturized chips that power classical computers. IBM and Google machines must be cooled down to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, colder than interstellar space. That's to keep energy from the outside world from perturbing the supersensitive qubits and spoiling their calculations.

A bank of computers and other custom hardware controls the quantum computer, sending instructions and reading results with carefully constructed microwave pulses through the chandelier's looping cables.

IBM's priority is to double each year its "quantum volume," a measurement that combines qubit count with other factors like how long they can be used before error rates foul a computation. Most other companies haven't embraced quantum volume as a performance yardstick, but the one that has, Honeywell, promised in March to increase its quantum volume by a factor of 10 each year, leapfrogging IBM.

"This moves up my quantum timetable about five years," Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said of Honeywell's pledge. "Maybe more."

With tech giants and developers stepping into the ring, that timetable is bound to keep moving forward. And as IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others compete to make what capabilities they have accessible to more and more organizations through the cloud, those benefits of quantum computing will move closer to everyday use.