In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, IBM gave an unwary world its first publicly accessible quantum computer. You might be worried that you can tear up your passwords and throw away your encryption, for all is now lost. However, it’s probably a bit early to call time on the world as we know it. You see, the whole computer is just five bits.
This might sound like some kind of publicity stunt; maybe it’s IBM’s way of clawing some attention back from D-Wave’s quantum computing efforts. But a careful look shows that serious science undergirds the announcement.
The IBM system is, on a very superficial level, similar to D-Wave’s. Both systems use superconducting quantum interference devices as qubits (quantum bits). But the similarity ends there. As IBM emphasizes, its quantum computer is a universal quantum computer—which D-Wave’s is not.
Another big difference: IBM can address and measure the state of each qubit individually. The company can measure (and has) all the critical features of its device. If you want to know how long a qubit retains its state, IBM can tell you. IBM even shows that addressing multiple qubits in a random way doesn’t affect the state of the others too badly. Big Blue is really building its quantum computer from the foundation up, while still ensuring that the engineering fits real-world requirements.
And we know a fair bit about the hardware. In 2015, IBM released a detailed schematic of how the circuit is put together and how it is linked to the outside world. The schematic probably isn’t detailed enough for me to build the circuit in my local cleanroom, but I bet my friends down the hall who work in the field can. Releasing this sort of detail is what we in the industry call “doing science.”
I was lucky enough to get hold of a draft of the paper about the device. The key focus of the hardware at the moment is not on computing (which is pointless with five qubits) but on ensuring that the device computes reliably thanks to good error correction.
Let me get my red pen
Modern memory and communications systems would not function without error correction. The essential idea is to…
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