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One quantum leap for IBM, one small step for IT

After cooking for more than three decades in its research laboratories, Big Blue has served up an appetizer of its quantum computing efforts, to give the IT world its first taste of what possibilities the emerging technology might offer.

The first morsel is a set of APIs to help developers build interfaces between five IBM-hosted quantum computers and the company’s installed base of host-based systems. Included with the new APIs is an improved quantum simulator, accessible through the IBM cloud, to run algorithms on model circuits of up to 20 qubits.

IBM promises to follow up with a full-blown SDK in the first half of this year that lets programmers build simple quantum applications for both business and scientific use.

Despite the sci-fi aura around quantum computing, it would be a mistake to view the technology as the successor to IBM’s current mainframe and Watson technologies any time soon. Rather than a one-for-one replacement, it is intended more as a complimentary technology that solves complex problems beyond the abilities of today’s traditional systems.

“There could be a universal fault-tolerant quantum computer able to do everything a classic computer can do, but that’s a long way off,” said Dave Turek, vice president with IBM’s high performance computing and cognitive systems. “For now, what we are trying to do is solve problems that are intractable for conventional computers.”

One practical example is what Turek referred to as the traveling salesman problem. Conventional computers could easily calculate an optimal route for a salesman if it only involved two, three or four cities. But to calculate the possible routes for 20 or more cities, the number of possible routes grows exponentially and becomes too difficult for today’s systems.

“To solve that you have to assess a number of routes that can only be counted by counting the number of atoms in the universe. That is how big that number of routes gets,” Turek said.

Another example of what quantum computing can do is to help discover more efficient and creative ways to produce greater quantities of ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer. With the world’s population expected to nearly double by 2050 and farmers having to feed twice as many people with the same amount of land at their disposal, such advances will be essential.

“Conventional computing models can’t get within a reasonable distance of what is going on at the molecular level to create models to solve such problems,” Turek said.

Other business problems that can be addressed with quantum computing, Turek said, include finding optimal routes for logistics and supply chains, coming up with better ways to model financial data and identifying risk factors in making investments, making cloud computing more secure through quantum physics and improving the capabilities of machine learning when handling large data sets.

Since last year IBM and a handful of industrial partners — all members of the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, including Samsung, Honda, Canon, and Hitachi Metals – have researched potential quantum applications and evaluated their viability for business use.

Full-blown quantum computing systems won’t be operational for several years, but opening it up to corporate developers will get IT shops thinking about what the technology can do, Turek said.

“I think you will see some very interesting things in the next two years as developers begin solving real commercial problems,” he said.

Specifications for the new Quantum APIs are available on GitHub at https://github.com/IBM/qiskit-api-py.

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at escannell@techtarget.com.

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