Quantum computing remains years off as a commercial reality. However, recent R&D breakthroughs are helping accelerate the path toward what US-based IT giant IBM calls “quantum advantage.”

Quantum computing has emerged as the latest buzzword in recent years, but it is a buzz that is being increasingly backed by real products and roadmaps that indicate the early stage of what is expected to be a multi-decade growth cycle.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing represents a radical change to traditional storage and processing architectures that rely on sets of binary on/off bits. Currently, up to two billion of these transistors can be stored on a single chip. Instead of bits, quantum computing relies on quantum bits (‘qubits’) that replace the binary system in which two pieces of information can be stored, and those values – here comes the quantum computing – can be a nearly infinite combination of ‘atomic’ values that go far beyond today’s 0 versus 1 environment. The result is that quantum computers are likely to eventually perform complicated operations that today’s electronic computers simply cannot.

IBM Q System One

After years of research, there are clear signs of progress. IBM, one of the drivers of quantum computing R&D, announced a milestone in January with the introduction of the IBM Q System One, the world’s first system designed for actual commercial use. Rather than in a lab, the system operates out of an IBM cloud data centre.

Despite the continuous improvement, IBM cautions that the industry is far from achieving ‘quantum advantage’ – the point at which the industry can definitively demonstrate use cases in which quantum computing clearly outperforms classic computers. In fact, IBM believes ‘quantum advantage’ may be a decade away, and that assumes a doubling of performance every year.

Google AI Quantum initiative

IBM is by no means alone in pursuing the quantum computing opportunity. Google introduced a quantum computing chip and testbed in 2018 as part of its AI Quantum initiative, and it has partnered with NASA in research to explore the potential for quantum computers to tackle optimisation problems that are difficult or impossible for traditional supercomputers to handle.

Ultimately, the growing competition among vendors hoping to emerge as the early quantum computing ‘winners’ is a good thing for the industry. More aggressive R&D is likely to accelerate the time at which ‘quantum advantage’ arrives.

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