IBM Q division aims to offer commercial systems of approximately 50 qubits “in the next few years”



In 1954, Albert Einstein, struggling with the
weirdness of quantum mechanics, wrote that God does not play dice with the
universe. A little over 60 years later, IBM and a handful of other
organizations are not only playing with those dice, they’ve learned how to
consistently roll 7s, metaphorically speaking.

IBM earlier this week set
up a new business
, called Q, to commercialize quantum computing. IBM
has had an experimental 5 qubit system for more than a year that the company
said 40,000 researchers around the world have already used for over 275,000
different experiments.  

With the establishment of IBM Q, the company
promised two things: easier access to the quantum computer it has now, and a
commercial system of approximately 50 qubits. IBM said it intends to start
selling a 50-qubit system “in the next few years,” but that’s as specific as
the company will get on the timing.

A computer bit (“binary digit,” you no doubt recall)
is to a quantum bit (qubit) what the black and white color palette of the very
first filmed cartoons (e.g. Gertie the Dinosaur) is to the spectrum of color of
motion pictures filmed in high dynamic range (e.g. The Lego Movie). Where a bit
can be either a 1 or a 0, a qubit can represent 1, 0, and also a range of
values in between. The range increases exponentially with the number of qubits;
a 250-qubit computer could contain more bits than there are particles in the

As befits all quantum phenomena, qubits behave weirdly.
Based on many of the extant papers, a significant percentage of the work on IBM’s
5 qubit model is focused on simply characterizing the behavior of qubits and
the functionality of quantum computers. One of the results of all this research
is that the weirdness can be
characterized. It requires some sophisticated math to do it, but algorithms have
been developed to take advantage of qubits for computing purposes.

A 50 qubit computer should represent a profound jump
in power not only from 5-qubit models, but also from today’s common digital
processors. Such a device will enable people to solve problems they literally
could not hope to solve otherwise. For at least two years IBM has been using
the example of a caffeine molecule, which has so many possible quantum states
it is simply beyond the capability of standard computers to model them all –
and caffeine is a relatively simple molecule.

The potential for developing new drugs obviously
follows, perhaps even drugs designed for specific individuals. Other
applications IBM Q envisions for quantum computing include supply chain
management (think of the USPS in the weeks before Christmas), computer
security, and as an adjunct to machine learning.

To entice more researchers to familiarize themselves
with quantum computing in advance of producing a commercial product, IBM Q has
introduced an API (application program interface) that will allow anyone to
connect a standard to computer to IBM’s existing 5 qubit quantum computer via
the IBM Cloud Platform. The company also released a simulator that will enable
users to see what it might be like working with a 20-qubit version. The company
promised a software development kit (SDK) for working with that 20-qubit simulation
will be available by summer.

Beyond that, IBM has been parsimonious with details
about its quantum computer; it did not return calls for this article.

For example, it’s not clear what superconducting
material IBM is basing its quantum computer on, although Jerry Chow, manager of
the experimental quantum computing group at IBM Watson Research Center, said it
requires cooling near absolute zero in a 2015 TED talk. The company has publicized
work with niobium-aluminum alloys (which go superconducting near absolute zero)
on silicon substrates but it has never said explicitly that these are the
superconducting materials used in its quantum computers.

Jerry Chow’s TED talk:

There are questions about what it takes to scale up
the number of qubits, which might provide some indication on the timing of
IBM’s promised introduction of a quantum computer with roughly 50. It took the
company several years to double the count from 2 qubits to 4, which it
accomplished in 2015. At that time, Chow said IBM was experimenting with an
8-qubit model, but two years later the company is still at 5.

It’s also not precisely clear what the distinctions
are between extant quantum computers, although that might be more easily
extrapolated. The other most famous quantum computer is from D-Wave Systems
Inc., which is barely more forthcoming on details than IBM.

In 2015, D-Wave introduced a commercial quantum
computing system with 1,000-plus qubits, which would appear to represent an eye-popping
lead over IBM, but the two seem to be building different beasts. You can tell
people that a goat and a moose are both ungulates, but there’s not much more
the two have in common.  

There are three different categories
of quantum computer: quantum annealer, analog quantum, and universal quantum.

IBM calls the quantum annealer the least powerful
and the most restrictive, though the easiest to build. Annealers are
restrictive inasmuch as they’re suitable only for solving optimization
problems, at least in IBM’s opinion.

IBM characterizes the analog quantum as a system of
between 50 and 100 qubits, with a more general applicability to a wider variety
of problem types, though still a limited set.

IBM says the most powerful quantum computer is the
universal quantum. Such a device would consist of more than 100,000 physical
cubits and would be useful for solving nearly any problem type. IBM says such a
device will be difficult to build, however, in part because of “a number of
difficult technical challenges” that will first have to be solved.

D-Wave and its partners, which include Google and
NASA, are explicitly focusing on annealing systems.

It’s not entirely clear where IBM is headed, but it
dismissiveness of quantum annealers suggests its ambition is greater. When the
company talks about the problems it is hoping to solve, those problems map against
the list of applications that an analog quantum would be appropriate for;
certainly the number of qubits is in the same order of magnitude.

That said, some of those same applications appear on
IBM’s list of applications a universal computer would be good for, and
occasionally when IBMers talk about quantum computing they refer to universal computers.

IBM also said that any organization
interested in collaborating to explore quantum applications can apply for
membership to the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a consortium that develops and shares a portfolio of new
computing technologies and evaluates their business implications. Founding
members of the Frontiers Institute include Samsung, JSR, Honda, Hitachi Metals,
Canon, and Nagase.

IBM is
making the specs for its new Quantum API available on GitHub ( and providing simple scripts ( to demonstrate how the API