IBM is positioning itself as a first mover in establishing the era of commercial quantum computing. The company believes in order for quantum to work, taming qubits isn’t enough, there needs to be an engaged ecosystem of partners. As part of its strategy to transition from quantum science to what IBM calls quantum-readiness, Big Blue held the first IBM Q Summit in Palo Alto, California, today (April 5), welcoming a group of startups into its quantum network.
“Membership in the network will enable these startups to run experiments and algorithms on IBM quantum computers via cloud-based access,” explained Jeff Welser, director, IBM Research – Almaden, in a blog post. “Additionally, these startup members will have the opportunity to collaborate with IBM researchers and technical SMEs on potential applications, as well as other IBM Q Network organizations.”
The Q Network was launched in December in partnership with both industry and academic and government clients, including JP Morgan Chase, Daimler, Samsung, JSR, Barclays, Keio University, Honda, Oak Ridge National Lab, University of Oxford, University of Melbourne, Hitachi Metals and Nagase. Now IBM has brought in these eight industry-leading startups: Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC), 1QBit, QC Ware, Q-CTRL, Zapata Computing, Strangeworks, QxBranch, and Quantum Benchmark. (Additional info at end of article.)
Quantum was a major topic of the inaugural IBM Think conference held in Las Vegas last month, where a number of featured speakers shared an optimistic timeline for establishing production usable applications.
Arvind Krishna, senior vice president, Hybrid Cloud, and director of IBM Research, said he believes IBM will show a practical quantum advantage within five years and it will have built capable machines for that purpose in three-to-five years.
Krishna hailed a coming era of practical quantum computing. “Quantum computers will help us solve problems that classical computers never could, in areas such as materials, medicines, transportation logistics, and financial risk,” he said during a keynote address.
IBM has been focused on making the engineering more stable and robust to enable a broader set of users, outside the physics laboratory. “To exploit and win at quantum, you actually have to have a real quantum computer,” said Krishna.
The community ecosystem is where IBM is distinguishing itself in the tight landscape of quantum competitors, that includes Google, Intel, Microsoft, early pioneer in quantum annealing D-Wave, and Berkeley-based startup Rigetti.
IBM has a set of three prototype quantum computers, real quantum devices not simulators, made available through its cloud network, which in just two years has seen 80,000 users run more than 3 million remote executions. There are 5-qubit and 16-qubit quantum systems available to anyone with an internet connection via IBM’s Q Experience platform, and a larger 20-qubit machine for select Q Network partners. IBM has also successfully built an operational prototype 50-qubit processor that will be made available in the next generation IBM Q systems.
As IBM grows its Q Network partner ecosystem, participating organizations will have various levels of cloud-based access to quantum expertise and resources. This means that not all members will get time on the biggest Q System, but startups in the quantum computing space will get “deeper access to APIs and advanced quantum software tools, libraries and applications, as well as consultation on emerging quantum technologies and applications from IBM scientists, engineers and consultants,” according to Welser.
The goal of the Q Network is to advance practical applications for business and science and ultimately usher in the commercial quantum era. “We will emerge from this transitional era and enter the era of quantum advantage when we run the first commercial application. It’s not about arbitrary tests or quantum supremacy, it’s very practical,” said Anthony Annunziata, associate director, IBM Q, at last month’s event. “When we can do practical things, we will have achieved the practical era.”
By making the machines available to a broader community, IBM is seeding the development of a software and user ecosystem. Annunziata stressed the importance of educating and preparing users across organizations for the coming of quantum computing. “It doesn’t matter how much we can abstract away,” he said, “quantum computing is just different. It takes a different mindset and skill set to program a quantum computer, especially to take advantage of it.”
There are two different ways of programming the IBM Q network machines: a graphical interface with drag-and-drop operations and an open-source software developer kit called QISKit. QISKit, as IBM’s Talia Gershon enthusiastically explained in her keynote talk, makes it possible to entangle two qubits with two lines of code.
Gershon, senior manager, AI Challenges and Quantum Experiences at IBM, holds that having fundamentally new ways of doing computation will open up a new paradigm in how we approach problems, but first we have to stop “thinking too classically.”
“Thinking too classically, as my colleague Jay Gambetta says, means you’re trying to apply linear classical logical thinking to understand something quantum and it doesn’t work,” said Gershon. “Thinking too classically is a real problem that hinders progress so how do we get people to change the way they think? Well we start in the classroom. When Einstein first discovered relativity I’m sure nobody intuitively got it and understood why was important and today it’s in every modern physics classroom in the world.
“Within five years the same thing will happen with quantum computing. Not only will physics departments offer quantum information classes but computer science departments will offer a quantum track. Electrical engineering departments will teach students about quantum circuits and microwave signal processing and chemistry classes will teach students not only how to simulate molecules on a classical machine but also on a quantum computer.”
Descriptions of the eight startups selected by IBM to be part of the Q Network:
• Zapata Computing – Based in Cambridge, Mass., Zapata Computing is a quantum software, applications and services company developing algorithms for chemistry, machine learning, security, and error correction.
• Strangeworks – Based in Austin, Texas, and founded by William Hurley, Strangeworks is a quantum computing software company designing and delivering tools for software developers and systems management for IT Administrators and CIOs.
• QxBranch – Headquartered in Washington, D.C., QxBranch delivers advanced data analytics for finance, insurance, energy, and security customers worldwide. QxBranch is developing tools and applications enabled by quantum computing with a focus on machine learning and risk analytics.
• Quantum Benchmark – Quantum Benchmark is a venture-backed software company led by a team of the top research scientists and engineers in quantum computing, with headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada. Quantum Benchmark provides solutions that enable error characterization, error mitigation, error correction and performance validation for quantum computing hardware.
• QC Ware – Based in Palo Alto, Calif., QC Ware develops hardware-agnostic enterprise software solutions running on quantum computers. QC Ware’s investors include Airbus Ventures, DE Shaw Ventures and Alchemist, and it has relationships with NASA and other government agencies. QC Ware won a NSF grant, and its customers include Fortune 500 industrial and technology companies.
• Q-CTRL – This Sydney, Australia-based startup’s hardware agnostic platform – Black Opal – gives users the ability to design and deploy the most effective controls to suppress errors in their quantum hardware before they accumulate. Q-CTRL is backed by Main Sequence Ventures and Horizons Ventures.
• Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) – Established in 2014 in the UK, CQC combines expertise in quantum information processing, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, quantum chemistry, optimization and pattern recognition. CQC designs solutions such as a proprietary platform agnostic compiler that will allow developers and users to benefit from quantum computing even in its earliest forms. CQC also has a growing focus in quantum technologies that relate to encryption and security.
• 1QBit – Headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, and founded in 2012, 1Qbit develops general purpose algorithms for quantum computing hardware. The company’s hardware-agnostic platforms and services are designed to enable the development of applications which scale alongside the advances in both classical and quantum computers. 1QBit is backed by Fujitsu Limited, CME Ventures, Accenture, Allianz and The Royal Bank of Scotland.