1. News
November 15, 2021updated 31 Jan 2022 1:44pm

IBM unveils 127-qubit quantum chip in latest commercial leap

By Robert Scammell

IBM has unveiled a 127-qubit quantum computer chip that the company says cannot be simulated by a supercomputer and will pave the way to quantum machines outperforming classical computers at some tasks within the next two years.

The processor, called Eagle, was revealed on Monday at the tech company’s IBM Quantum Summit. It is IBM’s first quantum chip containing more than 100 qubits, with its previous models operating with 27 and 65 qubits.

Eagle will be available to select members of IBM’s Quantum Network – a community of organisations with remote access to IBM’s quantum computers – in December.

It is the latest milestone in IBM’s quantum computing roadmap, outlined last year, which aims to make commercially useful quantum machines a reality.

After Eagle, IBM aims to achieve 433 qubits with a machine called Osprey in 2022. The following year it hopes to launch a 1,121-qubit machine called Condor. Beyond 2023 its long-term plan is to build a 1 million-qubit quantum computer. By 2025, Big Blue expects its technology to allow “frictionless” quantum computing capable of surpassing today’s most advanced supercomputers.

The New York-headquartered company currently has roughly 50 quantum computing systems deployed. These systems require very controlled conditions: their qubits must be kept at temperatures as cold as outer space.

Where a classical computer operates using bits of information, a quantum computer uses quantum bits or “qubits”. A normal bit is 1 or 0 – on or off. A qubit is much more complicated. When it is measured it will be either 1 or 0; before that, it exists in a quantum superposition of those two states.

The extra computational firepower provided by this approach means quantum computers can find a use anywhere there is a large and complicated problem to be solved. That could be anything from predicting the financial markets, to improving weather forecasts, to cracking encryption systems.

IBM also gave a preview of its next-generation quantum system, Quantum System Two, which will allow greater flexibility to add multiple processors to one system.

Quantum computers – here but not here

Quantum computers have seemingly been around the corner for many decades. However, recent developments in the industry include tangible advances that suggest the technology is finally making notable progress.

In October 2019 year, Google made headlines after it claimed “quantum supremacy” with its 53-qubit machine. The milestone refers to a task that a conventional computer would not be able to perform in a feasible amount of time.

However, some experts – including those at IBM – believe that quantum supremacy is not the best way to measure the efficacy of quantum computers. Instead, IBM prefers to measure “quantum volume”, a term it has coined that takes into account the error rate of a machine. IBM did not disclose the quantum volume of its newly launched Eagle processor and said it is yet to benchmark its performance.

Darío Gil, a senior vice president at IBM and head of his research division, told Reuters that following the release of the 1,121-qubit Condor chip the company will be close to reaching “quantum advantage” – another term for quantum supremacy.

Advances in quantum computing have been fuelled by growing investment in the sector. GlobalData’s thematic report on quantum computing notes the quantum computing market size in 2020 to have been somewhere in the range of $80m-$500m (the exact figure is hard to pin down).

Quantum computers have already demonstrated their business appeal. In 2019, Volkswagen and D-Wave optimised routes in real-time for a fleet of municipal buses running between stops in Lisbon, considering potential traffic jams and passenger numbers.

A small but growing number of companies are already offering the power of quantum computers in the cloud, which means the technology is already on businesses’ radar.

Earlier this year Honeywell Quantum and Cambridge Quantum merged to form a company that provides both hardware and software for quantum computers.

The turbo-charged computing power of quantum computers is expected to make mincemeat of many of our current encryption tools, which we depend on every day to keep our messages private and know that the machines we communicate with are legitimate. A handful of companies, including IBM, have been developing cryptographic algorithms that can withstand the additional firepower of quantum computers.