In an announcement last week, IBM reported that scientists from IBM Research and Raytheon BBN have demonstrated one of the first proven examples of a quantum computer’s advantage over a conventional computer. By probing a black box containing an unknown string of bits, they showed that just a few superconducting qubits can discover the hidden string faster and more efficiently than today’s computers. Their research was published in a paper titled, “Demonstration of quantum advantage in machine learning” in nature.com.

With IBM’s current 5 qubit processor, the quantum algorithm consistently identified the sequence in up to 100x fewer computational steps and was more tolerant of noise than the conventional (non-quantum) algorithm. This is much larger than any previous head-to-head comparison between quantum and conventional processors.

Courtesy: IBM Research

The graphic above defines 3 types of quantum computers. At the top is the quantum annealer, described as the least powerful and most restrictive. In the middle sits analog quantum, 50-100 qubits, a device able to simulate complex quantum interactions. This will probably be IBM’s next quantum machine; currently IBM offers a 5 qubit device. At the bottom sits the universal quantum. IBM suggests this will scale to over 100,000 qubits and be capable of handling machine learning, quantum chemistry, optimization problems, secure computing, and more. It will be exponentially faster than traditional computers and be able to handle just about all the things even the most powerful conventional supercomputers cannot do now.

The most powerful z System, regardless of how many cores or accelerators or memory or bandwidth, remains a traditional, conventional computer. It deals with problems as a series of basic bits, sequences of 0 or 1. That it runs through these sequences astoundingly fast fools us into thinking that there is something beyond the same old digital computing we have known for the last 50 years or more.

Digital computers see the world and the problems you trying to solve as sequences of 0 and 1. That’s it; there is nothing in-between. They store numbers as sequences of 0 and 1 in memory, and they process stored numbers using only the simplest mathematical operations, add and subtract. As a college student DancingDinosaur was given the most powerful TI programmable calculator then available and, with a few buddies, we tried to come up with things it couldn’t do. No matter how many beer-inspired tries, we never found something it couldn’t handle. The TI was just another digital device.

Quantum computers can digest 0 and 1 but have a broader array of tricks. For example, contradictory things can exist concurrently. Quantum geeks often cite a riddle dubbed Schrödinger’s cat. In this riddle the cat can be alive and dead at the same time because quantum system can handle multiple, contradictory states. If we had known of Schrödinger’s cat my buddies and I might have stumped that TI calculator.

In an article on supercomputing in Explain That Stuff by Chris Woodford he shows the thinking behind Schrödinger’s cat, called superposition. This is where two waves, representing a live cat and a dead one, combine to make a third that contains both cats or maybe hundreds of cats. The wave inside the pipe contains all these waves simultaneously: they’re added to make a combined wave that includes them all. Qubits use superposition to represent multiple states (multiple numeric values) simultaneously.

In its latest quantum achievement IBM with only a 5 cubit the quantum algorithm consistently identified the sequence in up to a 100x fewer computational steps and was more tolerant of noise than the conventional (non-quantum) algorithm. This is much larger than any previous head-to-head comparison between quantum and conventional processors.

In effect, the IBM-Raytheon team programmed a black box such that, with the push of a button, it produces a string of bits with a hidden a pattern (such as 0010) for both a conventional computation and a quantum computation. The conventional computer examines the bits one by one. Each result gives a little information about the hidden string. By forcing the conventional computer to query the black box many times it can determine the full answer.

The quantum computer employs a quantum algorithm that extracts the information hidden in the quantum phase — information to which a conventional algorithm is completely blind. The bits are then measured as usual and, in about half the time, the hidden string can be fully revealed.

Most z data centers can’t use quantum capabilities for their daily work, at least not yet. As Woodford noted: It’s very early for the whole field—and most researchers agree that we’re unlikely to see practical quantum computers appearing for many years—perhaps even decades. Don’t bet on it; at the rate IBM is driving this, you’ll probably see useful things much sooner. Maybe tomorrow.

DancingDinosaur is Alan Radding, a veteran information technology analyst, writer, and ghost-writer. Please follow DancingDinosaur on Twitter, **@mainframeblog**. See more of his IT writing at technologywriter.com and here.