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article imageIBM's new quantum processor is its most powerful yet

By James Walker     May 17, 2017 in Technology
IBM has announced a new quantum processor that runs at 17-qubits, a notable performance improvement for the company. It brings IBM a step closer to creating quantum computers with more power than the very fastest traditional PCs.
Quantum computers are still in the very early phases of development. IBM is one of a handful of other major companies working to build out the science and technology required for quantum computers to offer meaningful benefits. IBM is preparing an initiative that will see it rent out computing time on its quantum machines to business customers, creating the first on-demand quantum cloud.
Quantum computing is based on the science of quantum mechanics. Current binary systems store data in one of two states, 0 (off) or 1 (on). The qubits (quantum bits) used for quantum computers add a third state that's a superposition of off and on. In effect, the data is in both states simultaneously. This is what enables the immense performance of quantum machines compared to their binary rivals.
The technology is still a long way from replacing our current computers. Although today's 17-qubit milestone is significant, it's still less powerful than the biggest binary supercomputers. As quantum is in early days, a lot of the research concerns the underlying science. Scaling systems up is taking a backseat while the foundations are completed.
The major players in the field, including companies like Google and Microsoft, are aiming to beat each other to 50 qubits, a breakthrough that could give the winner a lead in the industry. Google has said it's on target to build a 49-qubit processor this year.
It's worth noting that some quantum computers have already far exceeded this. D-Wave has a 2,000-qubit machine that's based on quantum annealing. However, it's meant to be used in tandem with classical systems, relying on a different technique to the technology being pursued by IBM and others. It cannot be directly compared to these rival systems.
As well as a more powerful processor, IBM today announced a new quantum computing benchmark suite. The current measures used to determine quantum computing performance aren't an accurate representation of the true capabilities of the system.
The new suite helps to address this by introducing the idea of "quantum volume." It's a single numerical score to rank the performance of quantum computers. IBM suggested it should be used for fair comparisons between competing systems.
The details, explained in a research paper, are based on circuit depth theories. In short, the benchmark is more concerned with what the processor can calculate than how fast it actually performs the calculation. Although it sounds strange, it better aligns with how quantum gates operate.
IBM's 17-qubit system is currently a prototype inside its labs. The company is opening a 16-qubit machine to developers today, replacing the 5-qubit one that has been available for the past few months. According to IBM, over 300,000 programs have been run on the system, indicating that developers are interested in experimenting with the quantum world.
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