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IBM has just announced the latest breakthrough in its mission to make commercialized and practical quantum computers a reality – a 1,000+ qubit processor dubbed ‘Condor' and an error-correction-focused processor dubbed ‘Heron'.
Quantum computers represent a new approach to machine-based computation. Through the use of qubits capable of superposition and entanglement, quantum computers have the potential to perform faster and more complex calculations than classical bits used in more traditional computers. Unlike traditional computing, where bits represent either 0 or 1, qubits in quantum computing can represent both states simultaneously. Importantly, this makes quantum computing complementary to classical computing rather than a replacement; it excels in tasks like molecular simulations and system optimizations, while classical computing is better suited for everyday tasks.
It is because of the types of tasks that quantum computing should excel at that the technology is so vaunted. A computer capable of performing complex calculations orders of magnitudes quicker than its traditional counterparts is worth developing, as its use cases have the potential to change the world and our understanding of it.
IBM's Heron and Condor
With its announcement, IBM has made significant strides in quantum computing by launching two advanced quantum processors: Heron and Condor.
The Heron processor, featured on the ibm_torino quantum system, represents a leap forward with its 133 fixed-frequency qubits and tunable couplers, delivering a 3-5x improvement in performance compared to its previous 127-qubit Eagle processors. This advancement virtually eliminates ‘cross-talk' (undesired interaction or interference between qubits) and lays the groundwork for future hardware development. Notably, IBM is already utilizing these chips in its ‘modular-architecture' Quantum System Two computing platform.
On the other hand, the Condor processor, a 1,121 superconducting qubit quantum processor, is an equally notable innovation. It increases qubit density by 50%, incorporates advancements in qubit fabrication, and integrates over a mile of high-density cryogenic wiring within a single dilution refrigerator (a tool used to achieve extremely low temperatures, typically close to absolute zero). Condor's performance is comparable to the company's earlier 433-qubit Osprey processor, marking a significant milestone in scaling and informing future hardware design in quantum computing.
These developments by IBM are pivotal in pushing the boundaries of quantum utility and advancing toward quantum-centric supercomputing.
Applications and Limitations
As previously mentioned, quantum computers are so vaunted due to their potential to greatly advance our understanding of just about every field of science. The following are just a few examples of these.
Medicine: In medicine, quantum computing could revolutionize drug discovery by simulating the behavior of molecules at a quantum level. This allows for more accurate predictions of how potential drugs might interact with the human body, speeding up the development of new medications and reducing costs.
Meteorology: For meteorology, quantum computers could analyze vast amounts of weather data more efficiently than classical computers. This would lead to more accurate weather predictions and better understanding of climate change, helping to mitigate natural disasters and plan agricultural strategies.
Complex Problem Solving: Quantum computing could tackle problems that are currently unsolvable by classical computers, such as optimizing large systems for logistics and supply chains, or solving intricate mathematical problems. This has broad implications for various sectors, including transportation, energy, and finance.
It is also important to recognize that we can not know what we cannot imagine. Meaning, there will be scores of unexpected advancements made possible through the abilities one day provided by this technology.
“Quantum computing is the future of computing. It will open up new possibilities for scientific discovery and technological advancement that we can't even imagine today.” – Arvind Krishna, Chairman and CEO of IBM, in an interview with CNBC
With quantum computers representing such a monumental technological achievement, it should come as no surprise that there have been, and remain, significant hurdles and limitations that must be overcome in time. For example, quantum computing currently faces challenges in error correction, scalability, and developing practical algorithms.
In time, there are bound to be other hurdles that pop up, which were previously unexpected due to a rudimentary but growing understanding of quantum mechanics. The complexity and potential of quantum physics was emphasized in the following quote.
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics.” – Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in Physics
As it stands, these limitations mean quantum computers are not yet ready for widespread use. With recent advancements, optimistic timelines point to another decade before this is the case.
Education the Future Quantum Computing Workforce
In past decades, quantum computing seemed to be in such a distant future that courses teaching it were few and far between. Now that a future in which they are actually in use is beginning to come into focus, the need to train the next generation of scientists and engineers who will be responsible for continuing this advancement is only increasing. As a result, many universities are now offering specialized courses and programs in quantum computing to prepare a skilled workforce for this emerging field.
- The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo is a notable example, combining academic research with a drive to commercialize technology. Funded by Mike Lazaridis, creator of BlackBerry, it employs about 296 researchers and has published over 1,500 research papers.
- University of Oxford has a long history in quantum computing, with significant contributions to the field, including the first working pure state NMR quantum computer.
- Harvard University’s Harvard Quantum Initiative focuses on advancing the science and engineering of quantum computers and their applications, preparing for what it calls the “second quantum revolution.”
- MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics delves deep into quantum information and quantum computing, exploring quantum algorithms, quantum information theory, and the experimental realization of quantum computers.
- National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Quantum Technologies and University of California Berkeley’s Center for Quantum Information and Computation are also pioneering in quantum computing education, focusing on research and development of quantum devices.
- University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute collaborates with major institutions like NIST and LPS, conducting extensive research programs dedicated to controlling and exploiting quantum systems.
Industry Players Advancing Quantum Computing
While the aforementioned schools may be training the next generation of quantum computing specialists, the following few companies are currently paving the road to this future.
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IBM has long been a leader in the development of quantum computers. The company aims to democratize quantum computing development through initiatives like Qiskit Patterns. IBM has also expanded its roadmap for achieving large-scale, practical quantum computing, focusing on new modular architectures and networking that could enable quantum systems with hundreds of thousands of qubits, essential for practical quantum applications.
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Microsoft's efforts in quantum computing are centered around cloud integration and collaboration. The company has introduced quantum machines with the highest quantum volumes in the industry to Azure Quantum, including partnerships with IonQ, Pasqal, Quantinuum, QCI, and Rigetti. This integration facilitates experimentation and is a step towards scaled quantum computing. Microsoft emphasizes the importance of a global ecosystem to realize the full potential of quantum computing and plans to deliver its quantum machine as a cloud service through Azure, ensuring secure and responsible use of this emerging technology.
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Alphabet, through its Google Quantum AI lab, has made significant strides in quantum computing. In 2023, Google scientists announced a major milestone in reducing the rate of errors in quantum computing, a long-standing challenge in the field. Its research, published in the journal Nature, describes a system capable of significantly decreasing the error rate and implementing error-correcting codes that can detect and fix errors without compromising the information. Previously, in 2019, Google claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy” with its Sycamore machine, performing a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken a conventional supercomputer 10,000 years, demonstrating the potential of quantum computing in solving complex problems far beyond the capabilities of traditional computing.
Quantum computing represents a groundbreaking leap in the world of computing, offering the potential to revolutionize a plethora of fields. While IBM's recent advancements with the Heron and Condor quantum processors signify significant progress toward practical quantum computing, the technology continues to face significant challenges in error correction, scalability, and algorithm development – highlighting the need for continued research and innovation.
While these challenges remain, quantum computing holds the promise of unlocking possibilities we can't even imagine today, ushering in a new era of scientific discovery and technological advancement. Its full potential is still unfolding, and its impact on various industries and society promises to be profound.