No, that wasn’t a fancy chandelier on the periphery of ES Design West’s exhibit area, the co-located event at SEMICON West. It was IBM’s Q quantum computer, a striking bit of industrial design that looks like a chandelier from a stately ballroom.
While it resembled an ornate lighting fixture, IBM Q does much more than illuminate a room. The Q contains 20-quantum bits (20 qubits), equivalent to 2**20 or two to the 20th power classic bits. Impressively, IBM is currently readying (or may already have) a 50-qubit computer.
During ES Design West, IBM demonstrated the Q Experience quantum cloud services platform and Qiskit, an open source quantum software framework. IBM’s booth staff showed how Q can solve problems beyond the practical reach of even today’s conventional supercomputers. Examples include the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) of finding the shortest route to enable the salesman to visit every city once and return to the starting point. Other examples are chemistry, drug and medicine discovery, weather and climate modeling, and security and advanced cryptography.
The demos did even more, highlighting just how far semiconductor design and manufacturing advances have come to make quantum computing architecture possible.
We have Dr. Jeffrey Welser, vice president of IBM Research–Almaden, to thank for bringing Q to SEMICON West and ES Design. During his keynote, The Future of Computing: Bits + Neurons + Qbits, he noted that Quantum computing holds the potential to solve problems even the most powerful classical computers cannot and challenges our community to drive innovation from materials to devices to systems. Both he and the booth staffers made the point out that Q will not replace conventional computing but augment it to solve complex problems beyond computational limits and/or the storage capacity of conventional computers.
Challenges of Quantum Computing are not insignificant, however, and start with coherence time or the time interval over which the qbit is in a quantum state. The 20-qbit Q shown at ES Design West has a coherence time of 90 microseconds. Noise and variance are other challenges. The IBM booth staff said that a typical program must be run at least 1,000 times. Results are filtered with the extremes removed to get the most consistent result.
Fault tolerance is high on the list of challenges as well because a solution for fault tolerance in quantum computing has yet to be discovered. Users like us take fault tolerance for granted in modern classical computers, addressed in hardware and firmware. Programmers don’t need to be concerned about it because the computer takes care of it through error correction.
Finally, Q and most other quantum computers require near 0 Kelvin temperatures to operate. The refrigeration systems are large, expensive and not easily portable. Research is ongoing to find materials, such as carbon nanospheres, that will allow quantum computing at room temperature.
Most experts agree that we are years away from practical deployment of large quantum computer systems. IBM’s open system for users around the world to access a Q computer to run programs is helping drive the way forward.
Robert (Bob) Smith is Executive Director of the ESD Alliance, a SEMI Strategic Association Partner. He is responsible for the management and operations of the ESD Alliance, an international association of companies providing goods and services throughout the semiconductor design ecosystem.