IBM Nudges Ahead in the Race for Quantum Supremacy
A pair of new chips show that scaling up quantum devices looks increasingly plausible.
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IBM Research has built its most powerful quantum chips yet, and is putting them up for use by researchers via the cloud.
The most impressive of its new chips is a prototype that uses 17 of the quantum equivalent of digital bits known as qubits. That’s up from five last year, and more than the nine that were featured in a device recently tested by Google. Like some of Google’s other latest quantum chips, IBM is starting to lay out qubits in orientations where they sit side by side. In the past it’s been hard to do that and ensure that the hardware still works, but the fact that it’s now achievable suggests that scaling up the devices even further will be plausible in the future.
The second of the new chips, pictured above, features 16 qubits, which makes it less powerful than the larger chip. But this device is robust enough that IBM is using it to upgrade its online service, which allows any researcher to test algorithms on quantum chips. The previous version of the service, which was part of the first-ever head-to-head quantum computer race, used the firm’s five-qubit chip. Meanwhile, the 17-qubit device will be opened up to just a handful of specific researchers to test.
When MIT Technology Review asked IBM to describe the technological leaps that had enabled it to build the new chips, it was tight-lipped. But it did say that advances in the materials it uses and the overall architecture of the device make the 17-qubit chip “at least twice as powerful” as its slightly smaller sibling.
Both IBM and Google, along with Intel, Microsoft, and some smaller research teams, are all currently scrambling to build the first genuinely useful quantum devices. The jump in processing power of IBM’s online service is a further hint that quantum computing is on the verge of becoming a reality, something that we anticipated when we made practical quantum computers one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017.
To that end, Google laid down a gauntlet earlier this year, when it announced that it plans to build and test a 49-qubit device before the end of 2017. Both Google and IBM see that as the tipping point that could enable the first demonstration of quantum supremacy—when a quantum computer can perform a task that even the most powerful regular computers would struggle to crunch through.
For its part, IBM also plans to increase the number of qubits in its devices. But it will only say that it plans to build a device with 50 or more qubits “over the next few years.”
(Read more: “Google’s New Chip Is a Stepping Stone to Quantum Computing Supremacy,” “IBM Inches Ahead of Google in Race for Quantum Computing Power,” “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Practical Quantum Computers”)