COLLABORATION

IBM and its academic partners are hurtling towards quantum supremacy

SOURCE: IBM Research.
The IBM Q Network brings together Fortune 500 companies, startups, government scientists and academic researchers from around the world.

Beautiful and sleek best describe IBM’s Q System One, touted by the computing giant as “the world’s first integrated universal computing system designed for scientific and commercial use”.

But whilst it’s true the flashy device, unveiled at 2019 International CES in Las Vegas this January, was “designed” for commercial use, its practical uses remain relatively limited – at least if you’re thinking they’d be able to outperform classical computers to solve real-world problems.

“It’s more like a stepping stone than a practical quantum computer,” Winfried Hensinger, professor of quantum technologies at the UK’s University of Sussex, explains in The Verge.

“Don’t think of this as a quantum computer that can solve all of the problems quantum computing is known for. Think of it as a prototype machine that allows you to test and further develop some of the programming that might be useful in the future.”

Despite all the hype and rah-rah surrounding what the technology could do, the fact remains that the quantum computers of today are very much experimental devices, designed to be used as research tools to further develop its potential for the future. Although IBM has succeeded in making its computers commercially available through the cloud, the business of quantum computing itself is a tricky and highly sensitive one – its chips have to be kept in freezing environments and can be disrupted easily, from the tiniest vibration or electrical fluctuations.

So while the Q System One is definitely a gorgeous piece of engineering and does win hands-down on stability, reliability and ease of commercial use (IBM says resetting the machine takes just hours or days as opposed days and weeks), the quantum computing dream is still years away from full-potential realisation.

And given the sheer magnitude of what quantum computing can (or could) do that classical computers cannot (ie. solving the world’s toughest problems in medicine, computer security, transportation, and a whole set of other areas the simple human mind cannot yet comprehend), the competition to construct a stable machine is by no means a two-horse race. Heck, it’s not even a race – it’s a marathon, as IonQ CEO Christopher Monroe points out in Venture Beat

quantum computer
The IBM Q System One is a beautiful piece of engineering. Source: IBM

At this stage, many consider IBM to be in the lead but it is up against some pretty tough global competitors.

Others from the likes of Google to Intel, Microsoft, startups like California’s Rigetti or Vancouver-based D-Wave and of course, the folks over in China (its government is building a US$10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui province) are similarly, neck-deep in quantum research.

But IBM is charging forward at breakneck speed, harnessing quantum talents from across the world to both develop the technology and train future quantum experts.

Through the IBM Q Network, the company has already brought together a long and quickly growing list of Fortune 500 companies, startups, research labs and academic institutions as partners, each one working in similar or vastly different capacities to advance the field of quantum computing and explore its practical applications.

On April 25, 2019, the firm announced another expansion to the initiative, unveiling yet another long list of global university partners.

These include Florida State University, Harvard University, University of Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Stony Brook, University of Tokyo, University of Chicago and University of Waterloo, among others.

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According to the firm, through the expansion, the Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Stony Brook and Tokyo universities will now have direct access to IBM Q’s quantum computing systems both for teaching and learning, as well as to facilitate faculty and student research projects that aim to explore quantum information science and early applications of the technology.

“Developing practical quantum applications that drive business and scientific breakthroughs requires a diverse ecosystem,” says Dr. Anthony Annunziata, IBM Q Network Global Lead, IBM Research.

“Partnering with these world-leading academic and research institutions is key as we work to educate, empower, and get the next generation of students ‘quantum ready’ to advance the field.”

The following are some of the ways in which these universities will use IBM’s quantum resources:

The University of Notre Dame: As a network partner, the university will grow an interdisciplinary quantum-programming community, as well as develop a quantum workforce at the undergraduate and graduate levels to develop quantum computing applications in chemistry, physics and engineering.

Virginia Tech: A member of the IBM Q Hub at the Oak Ridge National Lab, the university will work with the Department of Energy and energy experts at IBM’s Almaden Research Center to develop new algorithms for quantum chemistry.

Stony Brook University: Also a member at the Oak Ridge National Lab, Stony Brook will conduct joint research and prepare a future workforce skilled in quantum technologies, including with a focus on basic and applied research in science and engineering, and in developing new discoveries in quantum computation and associated algorithms.

Several institutions to join the network will collaborate on specific research projects. These research collaborators are from Duke University, Harvard University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Waterloo, as well as the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Northwestern University through the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

Quantum computer
Quantum chips need to be stored at freezing temperatures. Source: IBM Research

The following are a few examples of research collaborations:

Duke University: The university’s The Brown Lab focusing on “quantum systems to build quantum information devices and sensors” will collaborate with IBM in the area of “quantum error correction”. This is an algorithmic method to remove errors in quantum computers, a crucial area of research and development for the future of quantum computers.

Harvard University: This is via the Ivy League’s Harvard Quantum Initiative, a cross-disciplinary collective of scientists and engineers from universities, companies and government that was launched to explore the realms of quantum theory and transform it into useful systems and devices. As well as transforming sensing, communications and computation, Harvard’s students and researchers are building an education platform or ecosystem for the future of science and engineering.

The University of Colorado Boulder: Through its CUbit Quantum Initiative, CU Boulder’s team of scientists and engineers will explore collaborative opportunities with IBM Q scientists for the purpose of joint R&D and training up the future quantum workforce.

The University of Waterloo: The university, through collaborative efforts with IBM, will work on accelerative research in quantum algorithms and quantum complexity theory.

The University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Northwestern University: Researchers from these institutions and initiatives are part of the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE), a massive, multi-institution research and development powerhouse focused on transformative research in quantum technology. Anchored at the University of Chicago (UC), the CQE’s mission is to accelerate discovery and innovation in quantum technology, and to attract talent, funding, and industry to the Chicago area. As IBM Q network partners, they will collaborate with the firm’s scientists on software, in particular compilers for distributed quantum systems, as well as quantum transduction for coupling and communicating with quantum computers.

According to CQE, the partnership will also see IBM Q provide funding for up to five postdoctoral positions across five years. These postdoctoral researchers will be tasked with researching quantum computing, communication, sensing and algorithms, for the purpose of exploring some of the toughest challenges in quantum information science.

“As the field of quantum information continues to expand, so will the demand for quantum engineers in industry, government and at universities,” says UC President Robert J. Zimmer.

“Increasing our collaboration with IBM Q and other partners in the CQE will allow our trainees, faculty and their colleagues to contribute to important work in applied science and engineering with strong potential to benefit society.”

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Through the IBM Q Network, IBM’s partners receive expertise and resources, as well as cloud-based quantum software, developer tools, and cloud-based access to the firm’s universal quantum computing systems. The no-cost and publicly available IBM Q Experience now supports over 100,000 users, who have run more than 10 million experiments and published over 180 third-party research papers.

Whilst it’s true it’s still hard to picture what a future powered by quantum technology will look like, the world is already at the cusp of a major quantum revolution. Experts are five, maybe fewer, years away from building machines able to perform calculations not currently possible on classical computers. If this were true, we’d be no more than a decade away before quantum computing will be able to solve truly useful real-world problems.

And with supercharged endeavours like this one already shattering the scale of academic-business collaborations, it looks like that future will arrive sooner than we think.