IBM's quantum computers have taken a step out of the lab and into the real world as Samsung, Daimler, Honda, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and others have signed up to use the exotic machines for research.
Big Blue has ridden many waves of technology -- the mainframe, the PC, cloud computing, blockchain, among others. Now IBM is betting quantum computing will be one of the next big businesses. The partnerships with big-name global corporations, announced Thursday, show some powerful customers are willing to pay to come along for the ride.
If successful, quantum computing could help solve new types of computing problems, breathing new life into an industry that today is struggling against hard physical limits to making computer chips faster, cheaper and smaller. For decades, that miniaturization trend, called Moore's Law, kept the computing industry's economic engine humming, but the hunt is on for longer-term technologies that will keep the progress coming to us all.
The new customers plan several types of quantum computing work, IBM said:
- Samsung will investigate new materials for microelectronics and new processes to improve manufacturing.
- Daimler, maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, will perform quantum chemistry calculations for new battery technology and research on the best way to route a fleet of vehicles.
- JP Morgan Chase will apply quantum computing methods to financial tasks involving trading, asset pricing and risk analysis.
Quantum computers employ radically different designs compared to the conventional designs that evolved during World War II and now power everything from our phones to massive mainframes. Instead of storing data in bits that can record either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers use qubits that can record both 0 and 1 through a wacky quantum-physics phenomenon called superposition.
A quantum computer with multiple qubits can be used to evaluate many possible solutions to a computing problem at the same time. With another quantum weirdness called entanglement involved, multiple qubits can be ganged together with exponential data storage and processing abilities.
A single qubit can store two states of information -- 0 and 1 at the same time -- while two qubits can store four states, three can store eight states, four can store sixteen, and so on. The answer to a computing problem can be tucked away in one particular combination of 1s and 0s.
But wait, because there's a complication: The act of reading data from qubits "collapses" all the overlapping qubit states into a single collection of 1s and 0s -- and not necessarily the right one that holds the answer.
If this sounds more complicated than building your own PC, you're right.
Samsung and the other partners are part of what's called the IBM Q Network, which offers online access to a 20-qubit IBM Q system this year. IBM has built a 50-qubit prototype that it expects to make available to the network's companies later.
IBM also makes its quantum computing systems available over the internet to general researchers through a program called the IBM Q Experience. That work has yielded 35 research papers so far.
But it's still early days for the quantum computing industry. Even today's commercial relationships are mostly about research. IBM expects the real business breakthroughs to come when quantum computers with at least 1,000 qubits are up and running.
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