Technology

IBM's online quantum machine gets faster

IBM's processor app in use Image copyright IBM
Image caption The processor can be accessed via a web interface

IBM has made its quantum computing system commercially available to businesses and beefed up an existing system used by the research community.

The firm is hoping to boost the numbers of people able to use such computers.

The machine, based in New York, has been available via the internet since May last year.

Future applications include the discovery of new materials and medicines as well as making artificial intelligence much more powerful.

Tricky problem

Since the system went online last year, more than 40,000 users have run over 275,000 experiments on it.

While the system it has made publicly available is currently only as powerful as a standard laptop, it is an important first step, said IBM scientist Dr Jerry Chow.

"It is about growing an eco-system of users, developing a community that can grow and define the software that will run it," he explained.

He added that the system now includes an interface which allows programmers to launch instructions for the machine using traditional programming languages.

Traditional computers process all their information using bits - information stored in tiny transistors that can either be on or off - interpreted as values of one and zero.

Quantum computing instead takes advantage of a mechanism called super-positioning that allows quantum bits - or "qubits" - to have values of one, zero, or both at the same time.

But the real power of quantum computing lies in a concept known as entanglement - whereby bits can interfere and interact with each other, creating many states.

Qubits are, by their nature, massively unstable and maintaining even one is tricky.

Most agree that when quantum computing hits 50 qubits - more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers currently available - that will be something of a magic number.

IBM's quantum computer will now offer simulation of 20 qubits, up from its original five, which gives the machine the equivalent power of an average laptop.

"Classical computers are extraordinarily powerful and will continue to advance and underpin everything we do in business and society," said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems.

"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."

One computing expert who has used IBM's technology said it showed promise.

"Whilst it is still relatively limited, it is allowing many of us to gain practical experience of running quantum algorithms," said Prof Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey.

"The recent improvements are a natural consequence of the community of users expanding and resulting demand for such improvements.

"It is important to note that quantum computers have the potential for extraordinary speed increases but only in certain types of algorithms.

"The correct time to commercialise such a facility is still open to debate, but there is a market developing with other companies such as DWave already selling their form of quantum computer. So, it's not surprising for IBM to want to capitalise on its progress."

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