IBM Touts Hybrid Approach to Quantum Computing

By George Leopold

March 6, 2017

IBM is attempting to move quantum computing to the mainstream via an application-programming interface and other software tools that would allow developers to build interfaces between its cloud-based quantum machine and digital computers.

The accelerating trend toward linking quantum machines—in this case IBM’s 5 qubit computer—with traditional computing underscores efforts to leverage the attributes of both approaches in what amounts to a hybrid computing platform.

Along with the API, the company also on Monday (March 6) released an upgraded simulator for modeling circuits up to 20 qubits. It also plans to release a software development kit by mid-year for building “simple” quantum applications and programs. Those efforts reflect the emergence of quantum software startups such as 1QBit, which partners with quantum computing pioneer D-Wave Systems.

IBM said the API and development kit would expand access to its cloud-based quantum processor for running algorithms, experiments and simulations. The company unveiled a research platform last year that has attracted about 40,000 users. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tapped the cloud service for its online quantum information science course. IBM engineers also have noted heavy use of the service by Chinese researchers.

The cloud-based system is “the beginnings of a quantum community,” predicted Robert Wisnieff, a quantum researcher at IBM’s Watson Research Center.

Indeed, IBM stressed that its latest initiative is designed to “expand the application domain of quantum computing.” The effort also introduces a new metric for gauging the pace of progress from research to a commercial platform with up to 50 qubits of processing power. The metric, “quantum volume,” includes the number of qubits, “quality” of quantum operations and connectivity.

IBM also said it plans to use these measures in developing a 50-qubit commercial machine over the next several years. “We envision IBM [quantum] systems working in concert with our portfolio of classical high-performance systems to address problems that are currently unsolvable,” Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems, noted in a statement.

Early adopters of quantum computing have embraced the hybrid approach. “Quantum computers are not going to be used in isolation,” predicted Ned Allen, chief scientist at Lockheed Martin Corp., an early investor in quantum computing technologies. The military contracting giant uses a D-Wave One quantum machine as part of its verification and validation (V&V) program for mission critical software.

Along with V&V, Allen predicted during a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that quantum computing was suited to application such as “classical” analytics.

He further predicted that hybrid-computing platforms would emerge that leverage quantum co-processors.

That hybrid approach seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future since a universal quantum computer remains elusive. In unveiling the cloud-based platform last May, IBM said it envisions “medium-sized quantum processors” totaling between 50 and 100 qubits over the next decade.

Still, a 50-qubit machine is at the threshold of quantum supremacy, where it could outperform classical computers on select tasks, underscoring the huge potential of quantum computing as traditional Moore’s Law digital scaling runs out of steam.

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