Research teams looking to crunch massive data sets have had access to IBM's quantum processor through the cloud for about a year, and now the company is upping that power with a new generation of processors. The first, boasting 16 quantum bits (qubits), will increase the processing power available through the cloud, while the second is twice as powerful again and designed as a prototype of a commercial quantum processor.
Quantum computers have the potential to be, in some cases, exponentially faster and more powerful than "classic" computers, thanks to the wizardry of quantum mechanics. Traditionally, one bit of information is either a one or a zero, but a qubit has the quirky ability to be a one, a zero, or both simultaneously.
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This power grows exponentially as more qubits are added to the computer: two bits can exist in four states (00, 01, 10 or 11), but two qubits can represent those four at the same time. In other words, a quantum computer could process all four states at once, while a classic computer would have to do each one in turn. As a result, quantum computers could be great for tackling huge amounts of data simultaneously.
IBM's current cloud-accessible quantum processor is built with 5 qubits, meaning it effectively has the computing power of 32 traditional bits. With 16 qubits, the new version has the equivalent of 65,536 bits, which will allow for much more complicated experiments to be run by developers and researchers through the cloud.
The second new processor boasts 17 qubits, which makes it twice as powerful as the 16-qubit unit and the most powerful quantum processor IBM has created so far, thanks to improvements to its architecture and materials. This device is designed to be a prototype of IBM's first commercial quantum computer system to be made available through the IBM Q initiative, which is the company's roadmap for developing practical quantum computers. In future, this groundwork could pave the way for far more powerful quantum processors.
"The significant engineering improvements announced today will allow IBM to scale future processors to include 50 or more qubits, and demonstrate computational capabilities beyond today's classical computing systems," says Arvind Krishna, director of IBM Research and Hybrid Cloud. "These powerful upgrades to our quantum systems, delivered via the IBM Cloud, allow us to imagine new applications and new frontiers for discovery that are virtually unattainable using classical computers alone."
IBM says it plans to continue improving all aspects of its quantum computer processors, fitting them to a new metric it dubs Quantum Volume. This figure takes into account not just the number of qubits in a system, but their quality, how they connect to each other and how often they return errors.