IBM Quantum Computing is moving towards eventual utility

In a move that bodes well for the long-term prospects of quantum computing, IBM announced on Wednesday that it had built a new machine called Osprey with 433 qubits. Tripling the total number of data processing elements compared to last year significantly increases the computing power of the system.

IBM has been working tirelessly for years to make quantum computing a commercial success, competing with big companies like Google and Intel, former specialists like Wave D and Computing Rigettiand new startups like Atomic Computing and Pascal. Quantum computing promises to address challenges beyond the reach of conventional technology that powers smartwatches and supercomputers.

One of the most promising areas for quantum computing is materials science, where quantum chemical simulations could improve solar panels, batteries and other devices that operate at the molecular level. But quantum computing fans also hope to bring new tools to AI, logistics and finance. With a slowdown in Moore’s Law constraining conventional computing, that could mean big new progress.

It will take years of progress before quantum computers realize their breakthrough advancements, but it is important to stick to the promised steps towards the ultimate goal. Without progress, billions of dollars of investment could dry up and a quantum winter could chill the industry.

IBM actually announced two new Osprey systems. The former is fully tested, said Jay Gambetta, IBM’s vice president of quantum computing work.

“It works. It’s alive. All qubits are good,” Gambetta said. “It’s another confirmation of the roadmap as we build bigger and bigger devices.”

The second incorporates improvements made to Osprey’s predecessor, Eagle, which extends the life of the calculations. Today’s quantum computers are limited by “coherence” time, which governs how long wayward qubits can maintain their state and connections to each other.

Improvements to IBM’s quantum processor design reduce electronic noise that can derail calculations, roughly doubling coherence time to 200 millionths of a second. That’s long enough for hundreds of calculation steps.

IBM’s new customers include telecommunications giant Vodafonewho investigates quantum secure cryptographyand French bank Mutual creditwhich is looking at financial services applications, IBM said.

IBM’s supercomputers, like Google’s and Rigetti’s, are called superconducting quantum computers. They depend on very cold temperatures just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero and colder than space. And they are housed in increasingly large and expensive cylindrical refrigerators.

To run signals from quantum computers in and out through increasingly cold refrigeration areas, IBM previously used loops of shiny wires. Now it has a new method, however, more compact communication link ribbons.

“We solved a scale bottleneck,” Gambetta said.

More scale is on the horizon. For 2023, IBM plans to build Condor to 1,121 qubits. This is followed by Flamingo at 1,386 qubits in 2024 and Kookaburra at 4,158 qubits in 2025.

Fix at 8:32 a.m. PT: History has distorted the temperature at which IBM’s computer operates. It operates at a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

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