IBM launches user-friendly quantum computing simulator

IBM has launched a new simulator that allows users to tinker with quantum computing through the Cloud. 

Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM
Quantum Computing Scientist Jay Gambetta uses a tablet to interact with the IBM Quantum Experience. The Cloud-based service will allow users to interact with a quantum computer.

Quantum computing is open to the masses, virtually.

IBM launched an online quantum computer simulator through the Cloud early Wednesday. The simulator will allow anyone with Internet access to run experiments on IBM's physical quantum processor. The project, called IBM Quantum Experience, is the first virtual simulator to be linked directly to hardware.

IBM's goal for the project? To raise interest in a technology that could accomplish tasks in moments that a traditional computer would find impossible.

"Quantum computing is becoming a reality and it will extend computation far beyond what is imaginable with today’s computers," said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director at IBM Research, in a press release. The "IBM Quantum Experience will make it easier for researchers and the scientific community to accelerate innovations in the quantum field, and help discover new applications for this technology."

Quantum computing is a hot topic for many of the world's largest technology companies. Google is working with NASA to build a large quantum machine, Microsoft is working on its own version, and Intel and others are also attempting to develop the technology.

The theory behind the tech is that the basics of quantum physics can be used to create more powerful computing machines. Bits, the basic unit for normal computers have a value of zero or one, but a quantum bit (qubit) has the potential to be zero or one or a superposition, a special combination of the two that has unique properties depending on the problem being calculated.

"Everything about quantum computing is probabilistic," Dr. Scott Aaronson, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, explained in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The goal is "to create a superposition that has a large probability of being the right answer. If you had an algorithm that purely had an 80 percent chance of giving you a correct answer, that's great. If you weren't happy with that number you could just run the algorithm another 100 times," he added.

What's the end goal for quantum computing research? Hopefully a machine that can solve problems that require a large degree of probability to answer in a relatively efficient time.

Two major applications are quantum mechanics problems for chemistry and physics at an atomic level and encryption. A powerful quantum computer could help design new substances and materials, like a cellphone battery that doesn't require lithium, or help crack or protect some of the toughest layers of encryption used to secure information.

But the machine accessible through IBM's Quantum Experience won't likely be breaking any new barriers, besides accessibility.

IBM is focusing on building quantum computing technology that is scalable. In other words, they are fine-tuning the technology on a small scale so that they can one day build a bigger more impressive quantum computer.

A "Universal Quantum Computer," capable of being programmed and scaled to tackle any quantum problem, is still years away and could require millions of qubits. IBM's current quantum computer consists of five qubits, according to the press release.

"With five qubits you're not going to be doing anything that a classical computer would even have to break a sweat to simulate," Aarson said.

But for exposing scientists, academics, and researchers to quantum computing early on and attracting talent to the field, the new Cloud simulator could be a perfect tool. It offers the simulator, tutorials on how to use it, and the chance to run real quantum experiments.

"It is a beautiful challenge to pursue the path to build the first universal quantum computer, but it requires us to change how we think about the world," said Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions at IBM Research, in the press release. "If you want to understand what a true quantum computer will do for you and how it works, this is the place to do it. You won't experience it anywhere else."

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