IBM Quantum Celebrates Milestone with a Contest to Pump Up Momentum

By John Russell

April 29, 2020

Four years ago IBM made the first quantum computer available via the cloud. It was the start of what remains a rather astounding initiative that has only gotten stronger. Today IBM’s quantum network has around 250,000 users, a fleet of 18 cloud-based quantum systems, more than 100 clients for its IBM Q Network, and IBM has begun a legitimate push for a benchmark, Quantum Volume, which although not sweeping like wildfire through the community is a needed effort.

Since then, the quantum computing bandwagon has picked up many more passengers. D-Wave, of course, was already banging the drum. Others in government, commerce, and academia were also at various stages of deciding whether quantum computing was worth the investment. Many more jumped in later. Today a mix of new and old faces populate the landscape – Google, Rigetti, Intel, Microsoft, IonQ, ColdQuanta, Q-Ctrl, Zapata and very many more – spanning hardware and software in today’s mushrooming quantum information science ecosystem.

The actual anniversary of IBM’s quantum cloud debut is May 4, 2016, and Big Blue is marking the occasion by issuing the IBM Quantum Challenge: “a worldwide initiative running May 4-8. The four-day challenge lets anyone tackle programming a quantum computer through the use of circuits – from writing their first “Hello Quantum” circuit to solving a complex optimization problem.”

Jay Gambetta, IBM

Partaking in some justified chest-thumping IBM Fellow and VP, Quantum Computing, Jay Gambetta wrote in a blog this week announcing the challenge, “…175 billion quantum circuits have been executed using our hardware, resulting in more than 200 publications by researchers around the world. In addition to developing quantum hardware, we have also been driving the development of powerful open source quantum software. Qiskit, written primarily in Python, has grown to be a popular quantum computing software development kit with several novel features, many of which were contributed by dedicated Qiskitters.”

Like most developing technologies, quantum computing and its quantum-based cousins (communications, sensing, etc.) is progressing in fits and starts and is subject to argument over directions and results. All that said, IBM has been a steady force pushing forward.

Gambetta and IBMer Jerry Chow wrote in 2016 the blog post introducing access to the cloud-based IBM quantum computers. In it, they wrote, “With current numbers of qubits in our lab around 7-10, soon we will be constructing processors nearing 40-50 qubits. At that level, such devices will have enough complexity that no classical computer, anywhere, will be able to emulate them. Unearthing the quantum advantage contained within these systems, and realizing Feynman’s dream, will be within reach.”

IBM has had a 50-qubit prototype system since 2017 and made a 53-qubit commercial system available to the IBM Q Network last year. Google has a 53-qubit quantum processor. D-Wave has 2000-qubit system but it’s quantum annealing approach differs substantially from universal gate-based systems.

IBM Q System (IBM photo)

Getting to quantum advantage cited by Gambetta and Chow has also not been easy. The idea here is to be able to run a practical problem sufficiently better (faster, bigger problem, etc.) on a quantum computer that it is worth the effort (time and expense) to make the switch from traditional digital computers for that applications. That’s versus demonstrating quantum supremacy which is demonstrating the ability to do something that is simply impractical or impossible to do on classical computers. There’s been lots of bickering around the QA versus QS chase. The chase for QA is still on and the trajectory towards QS seems like to be achieved soon if it hasn’t already been.

Back to IBM’s contest. One of the challenges in advancing quantum computing is training enough people to create the necessary applications to make it useful. Lots has been done by IBM and others to try to accelerate that work and IBM’s anniversary-marking contest is another effort to inject energy and attract users.

As of this writing, there’s was no detail on the “four challenges” which will comprise the contest. Presumably they will be made available at 9 am (EDT) on opening day. IBM has made available an abundance of resources for quantum novices and experts.

Here’s a recap of the plans excerpted from Gambetta’s blog:

The IBM Quantum Challenge

As we approach the 4th anniversary of the IBM Quantum Experience, we invite you to celebrate with us by completing a challenge with 4 exercises. Whether you are already a member of the community, or this challenge is your first quantum experiment, these 4 exercises will improve your understanding of quantum circuits. We hope you can also have fun as you put your skills to test.

The IBM Quantum Challenge begins at 9:00 a.m. US Eastern on May 4 and ends 8:59:59 a.m. US Eastern on May 8. To take the challenge, visit ibm.co/quantumchallenge.

In recognition of everyone’s participation, we are awarding digital badges and providing additional sponsorship to the Python Software Foundation.

Continued investment in quantum education
Trying to explain quantum computing without resorting to incorrect analogies has always been a goal for our team. As a result, we have continuously invested in education, starting with opening access to quantum computers, and continuing to create tools that enable anyone to program them. Notably, we created the first interactive open source textbook in the field.

As developers program quantum computers, what they are really doing is building and running quantum circuits. To support your learning about quantum circuits:

      • Read the Qiskit textbook chapter where we define quantum circuits as we understand them today. Dive in to explore quantum computing principles and learn how to implement quantum algorithms on your own.
      • Watch our newly launched live lectures called “Circuit Sessions” or get started programming a quantum computer by watching “Coding with Qiskit.” Subscribe to the Qiskit YouTube channel to watch these two series and more.”

Good Luck!

Correction: An early version of this article incorrectly reported IBM had not yet developed a 50-qubit system. It has had a 50-qubit prototype since 2017 and in fact made a 53-qubit system available to the IBM Q Network last year.

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