Posts Tagged ‘entanglement’

The Rush to Quantum Computing

March 9, 2018

Are you excited about quantum computing? Are you taking steps to get ready for it? Do you have an idea of what you would like to do with quantum computing or a plan for how to do it? Except for the most science-driven organizations or those with incomprehensively complex challenges to solve DancingDinosaur can’t imagine this is the most pressing IT issue you are facing today.

Yet leading IT-based vendors are making astounding gains in moving quantum computing forward further and faster than the industry was even projecting a few months ago. This past Nov. IBM announced a 50 qubit system. Earlier this month Google announced Bristlecone, which claims to top that. With Bristlecone Google trumps IBM for now with 72 qubits. However, that may not be the most important metric to focus on.

Never heard of quantum supremacy? You are going to hear a lot about it in the coming weeks, months, and even years as the vendors battle for the quantum supremacy title. Here is how Wikipedia defines it: Quantum supremacy is the potential ability of quantum computing devices to solve problems that classical computers cannot. In computational complexity-theoretic terms, this generally means providing a super-polynomial speedup over the best known or possible classical algorithm. If this doesn’t send you racing to dig out your old college math book you were a better student than DancingDinosaur. In short, supremacy means beating the current best conventional algorithms. But you can’t just beat them; you have to do it using less energy or faster or some way that will demonstrate your approach’s advantage.

The issue resolves around the instability of qubits; the hardware needs to be sturdy to run them. Industry sources note that quantum computers need to keep their processors extremely cold (Kelvin levels of cold) and protect them from external shocks. Even accidental sounds can cause the computer to make mistakes. To operate in even remotely real-world settings, quantum processors also need to have an error rate of less than 0.5 percent for every two qubits. Google’s best came in at 0.6 percent using its much smaller 9-qubit hardware. Its latest blog post didn’t state Bristlecone’s error rate, but Google promised to improve on its previous results. To drop the error rate for any qubit processor, engineers must figure out how software, control electronics, and the processor itself can work alongside one another without causing errors.

50 cubits currently is considered the minimum number for serious business work. IBM’s November announcement, however, was quick to point out that “does not mean quantum computing is ready for common use.” The system IBM developed remains extremely finicky and challenging to use, as are those being built by others. In its 50-qubit system, the quantum state is preserved for 90 microseconds—record length for the industry but still an extremely short period of time.

Nonetheless, 50 qubits have emerged as the minimum number for a (relatively) stable system to perform practical quantum computing. According to IBM, a 50-qubit machine can do things that are extremely difficult to simulate without quantum technology.

The problem touches on one of the attributes of quantum systems.  As IBM explains, where normal computers store information as either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers exploit two phenomena—entanglement and superposition—to process information differently.  Conventional computers store numbers as sequences of 0 and 1 in memory and process the numbers using only the simplest mathematical operations, add and subtract.

Quantum computers can digest 0 and 1 too but have a broader array of tricks. That’s where entanglement and superposition come in.  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 systems can handle multiple, contradictory states. That can be very helpful if you are trying to solve huge data- and compute-intensive problems like a Monte Carlo simulation. After working at quantum computing for decades the new 50-cubit system finally brings something IBM can offer to businesses which face complex challenges that can benefit from quantum’s superposition capabilities.

Still, don’t bet on using quantum computing to solve serious business challenges very soon.  An entire ecosystem of programmers, vendors, programming models, methodologies, useful tools, and a host of other things have to fall into place first. IBM and Google and others are making stunningly rapid progress. Maybe DancingDinosaur will actually be alive to see quantum computing as just another tool in a business’s problem-solving toolkit.

DancingDinosaur is Alan Radding, a veteran information technology analyst, writer, and ghost-writer. Follow DancingDinosaur on Twitter, @mainframeblog. See more of his work at and here.

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