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The company will open up a 5-qubit quantum processor to everyone through the cloud

A quantum computer for the people isn’t just a theoretical dream; IBM is trying to make it a reality.

IBM has built a quantum processor with five qubits, or quantum bits. Even better, IBM isn’t hiding the quantum processor in its labs—it will be accessible through the cloud for the public to run experiments and test applications.


The goal is to unwrap decades-old mysteries around quantum computers and let people play with the hardware, said Jay Gambetta, manager of quantum computing theory and information at IBM.


IBM’s qubit processor is significant because it’ll be the first quantum hardware accessible to the public, even if only through the cloud. Users will be able to work with qubits, study tutorials, and run simulations, Gambetta said. 


A quantum computer is already available from D-Wave, but it is being used by just a handful of organizations like Google, Lockheed Martin, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. D-Wave’s system, based on quantum annealing, is ideal for specific tasks while IBM’s quantum hardware is designed to run more varied tasks. 


Access to the 5-qubit processor will be available soon, though Gambetta couldn’t provide further details. It’s possible that access will be provided for free, he said. Researchers and academics may be the first people to use the processor.


Quantum computers would be significantly faster than today’s PCs and servers and will bring radical changes to the way computers are built. Quantum computing would be a way to advance computing even as smaller and more power-efficient chips become more challenging to make.


IBM’s 5-qubit processor also is a baby-step toward building the elusive universal quantum computer that researchers have been chasing for decades. A universal quantum computer could perform a huge range of computational tasks.

Two years ago, the company committed $3 billion to rethink conventional computer designs, with research centered around quantum computing and brain-inspired chips like its experimental TrueNorth processor.


IBM hopes to build a quantum computer in the order of 50 to 100 qubits within the next decade. A true universal quantum computer would require somewhere between a million to 100 million qubits, and that could take decades to build, Gambetta said.


The 5-qubit quantum processor is part of a new platform called the IBM Quantum Experience. Access to the quantum processor will be through the IBM Cloud Bluemix platform, which will provide the interface to load applications for crunching on the quantum processor. Bluemix also provides software, services, APIs, and development tools.


IBM’s quantum processor is hosted in a special “cryogenic dilution refrigerator,” an advanced cooling technique is central to keeping quantum hardware operational. IBM said the processor is stable and reliable thanks to research and engineering advances.


Quantum computers provide a radically different computational path than today’s PCs. At the center are qubits, which allows the systems to perform significantly more complex calculations than is possible with today’s fastest supercomputer.


Conventional bits in today’s computers are stored in the form of a one or zero. Harnessing the laws of quantum mechanics, qubits can achieve various states, like holding a one and a zero simultaneously, with states multiplying. This technique is called superposition and allows quantum computers to vastly increase their processing power compared to conventional computers.


But quantum computers can be notoriously unstable, which is why they have been so elusive. Qubits can be fragile, and their behavior or state could be hard to predict once they start interacting, or “entangling,” in a calculation. The state of qubits could be easily upset by heat or electromagnetic radiation, which can wreck computational cycles. That could make a quantum computer unreliable for tasks like genome sequencing, which need reliable performance over a sustained period of time.


IBM has been working to address many quantum computing challenges. Research is underway to resolve simultaneous data errors in superpositioned qubit arrays, also called phase-flip errors. IBM is also researching new materials for use in quantum computers.


Another goal with the Quantum Experience is to give users a crash course in programming for quantum computers, Gambetta said. Quantum computers provide an alternative computational path, and programs will need to be written differently for execution on IBM’s quantum processor.


Not all programs will execute properly. Users could see errors if qubits go out of control, but that’s an important part of learning how to use quantum computers, Gambetta said.


A 5-qubit processor is good for simple scientific programs, but don’t expect to run regular applications like Microsoft Word.

There are sample algorithms available for review in the Quantum Experience. One relates to Grover’s algorithm, which can be used to search unstructured databases and find answers faster than conventional computers. The initial quantum processor could also be used for material sciences and quantum dynamics applications, and the list will grow in the future.


It’ll be possible to run more complex programs as the processor arrangements are beefed up to support more qubits, Gambetta said.

Researchers and scientists will be able to discuss and share projects through the Quantum Experience. IBM has also formed the IBM Research Frontiers Institute to partner with researchers and organizations to advance quantum computing.


IBM’s trying to usher in a new community of quantum computer users with these efforts, Gambetta said.

“I don’t know where quantum computing will end up. We’re defining a path,” Gambetta said.


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A whole lot faster than your laptop.


Want to dabble in the field of quantum computing? Got a project that could use some next-gen processing power? Tech giant IBM might have the answer to all your processing problems, with the announcement that it's making one of its quantum computing processors available online to whoever wants to use it.


It's not quite as simple as logging into IBM's quantum computer via your web browser, though: you'll need to apply through IBM Research's website for your chance to get access to the system. According to IBM, your technology background and how much you know about quantum computing will be used to determine the kind of access you're given once you make it through the online portal.


Even if it's not quite a free-for-all, it's still an exciting demonstration of how top-level computing power can be made accessible to the masses through our modern-day internet.


Jonathan Vanian at Fortune reports that the quantum processor in question is stored at an IBM research centre in New York. A sophisticated cooling system keeps the chip at absolute zero, so the quantum processing can take place.


If you're not really sure wtf quantum computing actually is, don't worry - even the experts have difficulty picking apart its finer details. There's even some debate about whether we're already in the era of quantum computing or not.


That said, it's not that difficult to understand the technicalities to some extent. Quantum computing uses qubits - particles that can be in multiple states at once - rather than the standard transistors used in today's computers, which must be set to either 1 or 0. This flexibility leads to much faster and more powerful processing, because qubits can be 0, 1, or both, at any given moment.


Put that processing power to work on weather forecasts or cancer studies, and it could be revolutionary.


The IBM system uses five qubits, and is designed to raise awareness of quantum computing and its potential. Those granted access to the processor will be able to open a website where they can program an algorithm using something resembling a music bar - IBM calls it a "quantum composer".


The results are then compared to the findings of a standard processor. Because quantum computing is at such an embryonic stage, it might not always produce accurate results, which is why the check is so important. IBM is hoping its quantum processor will act as an important stepping stone to a full-on, universal quantum computer.


"Quantum computers are very different from today's computers, not only in what they look like and are made of, but more importantly in what they can do," Arvind Krishna of IBM Research told the press. "Quantum computing is becoming a reality and it will extend computation far beyond what is imaginable with today's computers."


"This moment represents the birth of quantum cloud computing," Krishna added. "By giving hands-on access to IBM's experimental quantum systems, the IBM Quantum Experience will make it easier for researchers and the scientific community to accelerate innovations in the quantum field, and help discover new applications for this technology."


With school kids in Britain being given free Micro Bits to practice their coding on, and computer buffs getting a chance to access the earliest quantum computing technology, the future is headed towards an open and collaborative approach to processing, and that's something we can all be super excited about.





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