IBM's Newest Quantum Computers Are The Most Powerful Of Their Kind

IBM has announced two powerful new quantum computer processors, one client-ready and another in the works.

An IBM quantum computer cryostat (Image: Andy Aaron, IBM via Flickr)

Today's announcement includes both a 20 qubit processor ready for use by its IBM Q clients and an operational 50 qubit prototype currently in development. These numbers might be small in the grand scheme of what folks hope to one day do with quantum computers, but they're some of the highest in the industry to date. And progress comes fast.

"If you look back 18 months ago, we started with 5 qubits online," Jerry Chow, Manager of Experimental Quantum Computing team at IBM told Gizmodo. "We're really going hard at it."

A quantum computer is a completely different kind of computer. Rather than operating with bits that can only equal zeroes and ones like a regular computer, its bits, or "qubits", equal zero and one at the same time while calculations are taking place. A user initialises these qubits, which is sort of like setting the weights on a weighted die, and then lets them interact via the mathematical rules of quantum mechanics. There are certain tasks, such as factoring numbers and modelling molecules, where a quantum computer would be much faster than a regular computer. Today, each of these qubits are made from specially-fabricated electronics that must be held at temperatures near absolute zero.

You won't see a completely quantum computer for consumer use - that isn't the point. Instead, classical computers will interact with quantum computers via the cloud or some other system to perform calculations that benefit from the quantum speed-up.

The cryostat for a 50 qubit quantum computer (Image: IBM Research/Flickr

The 20-qubit quantum processor would beat IBM's other offering as well as Intel's recent 17 qubit announcement. But Google has a 49-qubit processor in the works that may be the first quantum computer to out-perform a classical computer at the same task. Another group has announced a 51-qubit system that uses cold atoms instead of superconducting wires like IBM does.

And keep your head screwed on if you're starting to get excited - we have to be realistic. While not commenting specifically for this article, Ashley Montanaro, a lecturer at the University of Bristol, recently told Gizmodo "there's a lot of excitement but that automatically means there's a lot of hype".

These quantum computers still have very short "coherence times" - IBM's 20 qubit offering loses its ability to perform quantum calculations after only 90 microseconds (though this is industry-leading, according to the press release).

And improvement is about more than just qubit count. "We're all trying to keep making more and more capable quantum processors," Chow told Gizmodo. "Number [of qubits] is just one of those dimensions."

Qubits are incredibly error-prone, and it could take something like 2000 physical qubits to create a single usable qubit immune to errors that could be used in specially formulated quantum mathematical algorithms. This is something everyone in the industry is working on. For now, systems lacking error corrections are mainly used for simulating the laws of physics, like modelling molecules.

IBM has also announced updates to their QISKit Quantum Experience so everyone else can try running quantum algorithms of their own.

As for just how good these quantum computers are at modelling molecules, that's something Chow wants the IBM Q-clients to test, he said.

"We now have the toys to play with."