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The quantum decade: IBM predicts the 2020s will see quantum begin to solve real problems

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A new report from IBM posits that quantum computing is poised to take off and begin to pay off for business users.

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After decades of theoretical research, quantum computing is poised to make a major impact in helping solve some of the most pressing business issues, such as helping companies lower their carbon footprint and protect the world from the next pandemic. A new study from the IBM Institute for Business Value reveals that there will be a major payoff in the 2020s for companies who begin their quantum journey now

SEE: The CIO’s guide to quantum computing (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bob Sutor, IBM’s chief quantum exponent, said the 2020s are the inflection point for quantum computing because quantum computers have become “very stable” since the company put the first system in the cloud on May 4, 2016.

Fast forward to Sunday, June 27, 2021, when IBM achieved 900 circuits, or programs, running on its quantum hardware. “We’ll break a trillion circuits by mid-August,” Sutor said. This will lead to the “quantum business advantage,” the point at which IBM believes the combination of quantum computers with classical systems will solve some problems better than classical systems can do alone.

Classical computer bits can store information as either a 0 or a 1.

“The power of quantum computing rests on two cornerstones of quantum mechanics: interference and entanglement. The principle of interference allows a quantum computer to cancel unwanted solutions and enhance correct solutions,” the report stated.

Entanglement means the combined state of the qubits (units of quantum information) contains more information than the qubits do independently, the report said. “Together, these two principles have no classical analogy, and modeling them on a classical computer would require exponential resources.”

Where quantum computers excel

Natural sciences/chemistry and artificial intelligence/machine learning are among the areas where IBM expects quantum computers to be very helpful, Sutor said. AI deals with data, but also very computationally intensive math, which is the type of math quantum computers are very good at, he said.

“So we expect that the first way quantum will help AI is it will potentially allow us to do some of the mathematical computations underneath AI much faster than we can do today,” he said.

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So much of AI is about finding patterns in data and doing something with that information, which quantum systems excel at, compared with their classical counterparts, he said.

“Quantum computing lets us see information in ways that just are not obvious with classical AI,” he said. “The different model of quantum computing may allow us to see patterns in information that are either very hard to see classically—or potentially impossible to see.”

Besides accelerating computations, qubits have “a lot of extra computational power, both by themselves, but especially when you have many qubits working together,” Sutor said. One qubit can hold two pieces of information. Every time more qubits are added, “you potentially double the computational power and amount of information you can work with.”

By the time 275 “very good qubits” are working together, “we’ll be able to compute with more pieces of information than there are atoms in the observable universe,” he said. With more qubits, people will be able to work on complex things like new antibiotics and new antivirus medicines, he said.

Building a quantum workforce

IBM is at a “very good pace” in its efforts to grow its quantum systems, Sutor said. There are several types of people who will be needed to build quantum hardware and software, and especially those with the ability to build apps, algorithms and reusable parts.

People who can work on quantum and classical systems will also be needed as well as those working in specific industries who can take advantage of the building blocks for quantum and combine them with the building blocks for classical systems. “Together, they will be creating these programs, these new apps that demonstrate the quantum advantage,” he said. “This is what we expect to be happening this decade.”  

SEE: BlackBerry has built the iOS of cars, and it’s taken over the automotive industry (TechRepublic)

As a result, organizations need to become aware of quantum computing now so they can provide “basic education” relative to their industry, he said. Then they can begin using quantum and taking advantage of Qiskit, the open-source framework for working with quantum computers. Qiskit has hundreds of people who have contributed to the software, which has been downloaded over 600,000 times, Sutor said.

This is core staff talent that will emerge over the next few years working with companies to get them ready to examine the potential use cases so they can begin using quantum computers, he said.

What’s next for quantum computing 

Right now, IBM’s largest quantum device has 65 qubits, and that chip is about the size of a penny, at 18 mm, he said. “By the end of the year, we will have a device with 121 qubits, which is a really significant milestone.”

By the end of 2023, IBM will have a quantum computer on the cloud with more than 1,000 qubits.

SEE: AI in the OR: One company is closing the gaps in surgery using technology (TechRepublic)

This is significant because in order to demonstrate that quantum computing can solve problems better than classical computers alone, “we need to have quantum computing systems that have enough qubits to do the job” solving a problem, “and the qubits have to be of high quality,” he said.

The IBM Quantum Network also offers programs for organizations that want to do advanced research. It has 150 members from Fortune 500 companies, research labs, startups and universities, he said.

“It’s these people who are driving us with their requirements and with their own research using IBM systems to get us to quantum advantage,” Sutor said.

In terms of business apps, he said car manufacturer Daimler, for example, “is worried about new lithium batteries.” Companies can start using quantum computers to solve hard problems, “which is why we believe this is the quantum decade,” he said. “We’re starting to get large, fast and powerful enough, and lots of people are working on potential apps.” 

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