Articles on Quantum Computing

As IBM announces its 18th Quantum Computer going live, how many is enough?

May 12, 2020

IBM has stated it now has 18 Quantum Computers online and functioning. In the last four years IBM has been actively rolling out its Quantum Experience offering which enables anyone anywhere to use its Quantum Computers via the cloud. But how many quantum computers is enough? Will Quantum Computers become so ubiquitous that everyone almost everyone on the planet will eventually own one, just like the computers we have today.

Lets refer to a famous quote by the, then president of IBM, Thomas Watson, who wasn’t exactly bullish on the world market for Classical Computers in 1943. Could we be seeing the same thing now with the Quantum Computing market?

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

President of IBM, 1943. Thomas Watson
Blast from the past. IBM's System 360. Room sized machine. To learn more about the very interesting history from IBM development link. Image source.
Blast from the past. IBM’s System 360. Room sized machine. To learn more about the very interesting history from IBM development link. Image source.

Many research organizations around the planet are actively looking at how to increase the number of qubits (you can think of this as the number of bits in the classical sense) – which increases the usefulness of the machine. In addition they are increasingly the fidelity but reducing the noise on those devices so again, less actual qubits are required per calculation.

A Quantum Computer in every home or pocket?

There is one thing in common between those early IBM machines and today’s IBM Quantum Machines. They are room sized devices that require an plethora of highly skilled technicians to operate. But if Quantum Computing can solve some scaling issues then it could accelerate the demand and economics for Quantum Computing.

A recreation of an early DEC PDP11/70 machine which is programmed with switches. Output is to LED's. A student is getting to grips with programming using these very basic, but fundamental methodology - which has never changed until now - with the advent of the Quantum Computer.
A recreation of an early DEC PDP11/70 machine which is programmed with switches. Output is to LED’s. A student is getting to grips with programming using these very basic, but fundamental methodology – which has never changed until now – with the advent of the Quantum Computer.

We are a long was off seeing a Quantum Computer in the home, but perhaps not that off. It took around 40 years from the quote from Thomas Watson in 1943 to home computers that cost no more than a few hundred dollars. But in reality, room sized machines in the sixties were easily out-paced by home computers in the 1980’s, so that transition took around two decades.

A recreation of an early DEC PDP11/70 machine which is programmed with switches. Output is to LED's. A student is getting to grips with programming using these very basic, but fundamental methodology - which has never changed until now - with the advent of the Quantum Computer.
Sinclair ZX81. The home computer for the mass market. Sir Clive Sinclair’s machine was a popular hit for home users and showed the world what was possible on a home machine.

This time development might be quicker, since we know the past trajectory of classical computers and we are also further on technologically in other areas. But it could mean we are just 20 years away from seeing useful Quantum computers, although they don’t have be at home, as we can connect to them via the cloud. Speculation is all very well, but we could see a future much as we have today where users have almost limitless computational power at their disposal via the Quantum Cloud. So a Quantum Computer in every pocket really means, access from every pocket.

What is next for IBM?

As IBM rolls out ever greater number of machines, more users are understanding how they work and getting access. Already their devices have executed billions of user created quantum circuits. Expect this to continue and mature as both the user base grows, technologies mature and the number of qubits increases.

We cannot speculate exactly how many machines is enough, but we think like those early days of classical computing there will never be enough machines. Clearly as businesses explore Quantum Computing the demand with further increase and we’ll hit a positive feedback loop. IBM were the first to show four years ago that mass Quantum Computing is possible, the rest of the world is also making headway.

Expect to see more machine, ore qubits and a more computing stack. What also needs to happen is more innovation in algorithms to make Quantum Computers truly useful. We might be beginning to see some inkling of advantages as research look at these NISQ devices for topics such as Drug Discovery, Finance and Optimization type problems.

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