IBM just pulled ahead in the race toward monetizing quantum computing. The company has announced the creation of IBM Q, a new initiative with the goal of producing commercially available universal quantum computers for business and science. As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes mainstream, quantum computing will be essential for organizations wishing to find unexpected insights from the massive amounts of data collected by connected devices to improve business outcomes.
What is quantum computing?
In a way, quantum computing is the complementary technology to artificial intelligence (AI). But where AI is based on classical computers, where bits of information are represented in 1s and 0s, quantum computing is a whole other--very weird--ballgame. It operates at a subatomic level, where information can be both a 1 and a 0, a phenomenon called qubits. The particles in quantum computing therefore interact with one another in radically different ways than classical computing, including being able to communicate with other particles that are very far away with mind-blowing speed. Not only that, but since the qubits interact in completely different ways, quantum computers essentially "think" differently, allowing them to solve problems that traditional computers simply can't handle. In other words, AI can mine existing data to draw conclusions. Quantum, says IBM, can find solutions when the data isn't even there.
Theoretically, quantum computing is what's going to help us get past the stalling of Moore's Law, which states that computing increases in power and decreases in cost and size at an exponential pace. It will power a new age of connectivity and data-driven behavior. Anywhere there's a seemingly impenetrable tangle of information, quantum computing could come to the rescue. For example, quantum systems hold the power to understand complex molecular and chemical interactions that are beyond the scope of classic computers, which will lead to advances in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy and healthcare. And as the amount of data businesses collect grows to a volume that overwhelms binary systems, quantum computing holds the key to making sense of it all, which will optimize marketing, finance, supply chain and, yes, IT.
A new age of quantum? Not yet, but we're close.
As of yet, the benefits of quantum computing are still very much theoretical. The machines IBM announced this week won't achieve "quantum supremacy," meaning they won't yet outperform classic computers. But Big Blue and Google, which is engaged in its own quantum computing R&D, are confident that milestone isn't far away. But while IBM has been hard at work on a quantum machine for some time, it isn't placing all of its eggs in the hardware basket. It's using the cloud and software to let outside programmers help contribute to the growing understanding of the field.
Last May, IBM released Quantum Experience, which gave select researchers cloud access to its 5-qubit quantum computer to play around with. With IBM Q, the company has released a new API for Quantum Experience that it says lets developers build interfaces between that 5-qubit quantum computer and their own classical machines, "without needing a deep background in quantum physics." It also announced an upgraded simulator that can model circuits with up to 20 qubits and promises a full software development kit in the first half of this year. Significantly, IBM Q grants access to businesses, too. Hopefully, by the time a machine does reach quantum supremacy, there will already be a solid, commercially viable cloud-based ecosystem at the ready.
The (eventual) channel play
IBM isn't envisioning a day when quantum computers take over for classical computers. If they did, it would be disastrous for Big Blue's bottom line, which is entirely built on binary logic. Rather, quantum will complement traditional computing, enabling advances in security, analytics and AI.
“Classical computers are extraordinarily powerful and will continue to advance and underpin everything we do in business and society. But there are many problems that will never be penetrated by a classical computer. To create knowledge from much greater depths of complexity, we need a quantum computer,” said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems, in a statement. “We envision IBM Q systems working in concert with our portfolio of classical high-performance systems to address problems that are currently unsolvable, but hold tremendous untapped value.”
The company outlined several areas it sees quantum having substantial application:
- Drug and Materials Discovery: Untangling the complexity of molecular and chemical interactions leading to the discovery of new medicines and materials
- Supply Chain & Logistics: Finding the optimal path across global systems of systems for ultra-efficient logistics and supply chains, such as optimizing fleet operations for deliveries during the holiday season
- Financial Services: Finding new ways to model financial data and isolating key global risk factors to make better investments
- Artificial Intelligence: Making facets of artificial intelligence such as machine learning much more powerful when data sets can be too big such as searching images or video
- Cloud Security: Making cloud computing more secure by using the laws of quantum physics to enhance private data safety.
Google has said that it predicts quantum technology will be commercially available in the next five years, though it will probably be a bit longer before the channel really sees an impact. Quantum first has to come out of the realm of theoretical and into practical reality, then advance to a point where it's cheap enough and understood widely enough to be adopted by mainstream businesses and built into operational systems. Like IoT, that will take a while.
But in the meantime, it sure is fun to think about. Take a look at IBM's video below and visit its IBM Q page here to see a "neat trick."