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IBM quantum computing may arrive sooner than expected

If IBM continues doubling the performance of its quantum computers, as recent benchmarks indicate, it could deliver the first commercial system in the next three to five years.

Quantum computing may not be living in a galaxy all that far, far away.

IBM recently revealed its highest Quantum Volume score -- the standard way of gaging the performance of a quantum computer -- which doubled its performance from last year. This marked the third time since 2017 that Big Blue has doubled the performance of its quantum computers.

But squeezing more raw speed and performance out of IBM quantum computing systems isn't the most important development. What is important is IBM can now predictably make these machines progressively faster, enabling them to set a roadmap for the future of quantum computing.

IBM has said that if it can continue to double the Quantum Volume of the system, it can achieve Quantum Advantage -- that point at which quantum systems surpass what classical systems can do with a range of different complex applications -- within a decade. This week, however, Bob Sutor, who oversees IBM's quantum computing and AI research development, said IBM actually "hopes to see Quantum Advantage [achieved] in the next three to five years."

It would seem that quantum computing as a commercial reality is no longer 2,000 light years from home.

The race to deliver quantum computing

Like IBM, Microsoft has delivered a quantum computing toolkit that works with Linux, macOS and Windows to enable developers to create and deliver quantum services. Microsoft, again like IBM, is working in concert with a collection of third-party developers and academic institutions on a variety of adjunct quantum technologies. Microsoft has put together its own quantum computer in-house, but enterprises still don't know when the details on how fast it is or how close the company is to delivering commercially based quantum services will be released.

IBM Q System One is being used to explore system improvements and enhancements to accelerate commercial applications.
IBM Q System One is installed at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where IBM scientists are using it to explore system improvements and enhancements that can accelerate commercial applications.

Last year, Google revealed it had a 72-qubit system working in its labs, boldly predicting that the chip would be the first to perform calculations beyond what even the fastest existing supercomputers can do today. The company has not stated, however, when a commercial version of the system or cloud-based quantum services would be commercially available.

IBM's other archrival, AWS, only last year indicated that it has interest in quantum computing. Prior to that, the company believed the technology had not reached the point where it would be of any interest to its customers. But late last year, AWS executives Bill Vass and Simone Severini wrote that they were motivated by what quantum technologies can do for their customers. Vass and Severini anticipated that quantum computing would be "widely accessible as an integral part of the AWS cloud."

Company officials have yet to outline a roadmap for when they might deliver their first quantum computing offerings.

Quantum readiness

By announcing a short three-to-five-year timeframe, IBM is also telling its customers that it is not too soon to prepare for quantum computing. It takes some IT shops that long to get ready to switch over to the latest version of Windows Server.

What is important is IBM can now predictably make these machines progressively faster, enabling them to set a roadmap for the future of quantum computing.

IBM officials pointed out that the latest Quantum Volume number isn't just about measuring the raw speed of the processor. The benchmark also takes into account several other factors, including gate and measurement errors, device cross-talk, device connectivity, and the efficiency of circuit compilers. In essence, it measures the system's overall power.

This is a better barometer for how well the IBM quantum computing systems can solve problems beyond the realm of classical computers for things like simulating chemistry, modeling financial risk and optimizing supply chains.

"It's a holistic metric that takes into account all aspects of a quantum system for doing any quantum algorithm or app we are interested in," said Sarah Sheldon, leader of IBM's quantum performance and metrics team.

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