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Quantum Computing Now Available

December 12, 2017

Author: Linley Gwennap

As concerns mount that the end of silicon scaling looms near, quantum computing offers a path to continued performance gains. Prototype systems are fully functional, and some are reliable enough to work as a cloud service. These initial systems feature as many as 20 quantum bits (qubits) but can already perform complex calculations. Quantum processors are unlikely to ever completely replace microprocessors, but they could take over certain applications, eroding the dominance of traditional processors.

The threat is real enough to have caught Intel’s attention. The processor giant recently fabricated a 17-qubit chip for researchers at QuTech. Other tech titans are investing in this technology. IBM has constructed 5-, 16-, and 20-qubit systems that are available on its public cloud, and it’s working on a 50-qubit design. Microsoft has more than 40 researchers working on quantum computing. Google is reportedly finishing a 50-qubit system.

These research efforts, which all rely on superconducting qubits, must overcome several problems to move the technology into the mainstream. The qubits work properly only in the absence of external radiation, including heat and radio signals, so they must remain near absolute-zero temperature and require shielding from RF emissions. Even with these precautions, these qubits are error prone and operate for only fractions of a millisecond. The systems can’t read the state of any qubit until the calculation is complete, so they work best for complex calculations on small input data.

Despite the similar name, qubits are very different from classical bits. Their unique capabilities allow them to solve certain problems at tremendous speed but make them completely inapt for most other tasks. Initial applications include molecular simulation, path optimization, and certain cryptography functions. But this list could expand over time as researchers become more familiar with quantum computing.

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