IBM launches commercial quantum computing – we're not ready for what comes next

January 25, 2019 by Carlos Perez-Delgado, The Conversation
IBM’s quantum computer, Q System One. Credit: IBM

IBM recently unveiled what it claimed was the world's first commercial quantum computer. While the announcement of the Q System One wasn't scientifically groundbreaking, the fact that IBM sees this as a commercial product that organisations (if not individuals) will want to use is an important breakthrough.

IBM has taken a prototype that has existed in the lab for over 20 years and launched it in the real world. In doing so, it marks an important step towards the next generation of computing technology becoming ubiquitous, something the world isn't yet ready for. In fact, quantum may well prove to be the most disruptive technology of the information age.

Quantum computers work by exploiting the weird phenomenon described by , like the ability of an object to be, in a very real sense, in more than one place at the same time. Doing so enables them to solve problems in seconds that would take the age of the universe to solve on even the most powerful of today's supercomputers.

Too expensive?

The one criticism typically laid against is that they are "too expensive", and will continue to be so even as they become more readily available. This is certainly the case today. IBM isn't making its quantum available to buy but rather to access over the internet. But this shows the technology is on its way to becoming affordable in the near future.

Quantum computers are very easily disrupted by changes in the environment and take a long time to reset. So IBM has developed a protective system to keep the Q System One stable enough to perform tasks for commercial customers, which are likely to include large companies, universities and research organisations that want to run complex simulations. As a result, IBM believes it has a commercially viable product, and is putting its money where its mouth is.

History shows us that technologies can experience rapid growth in use and capability once they become viable commercial products. After conventional digital computers became commercially viable, they experienced an exponential explosion referred to commonly as Moore's Law. Roughly every two years, computers have doubled in power while their size and costs have fallen by half. This "law" is really just a trend that has been made possible, in part, by market forces.

The IBM announcement does not guarantee that quantum computers will now experience Moore's Law-style exponential growth of their own. It does, however, make that explosion likelier and sooner.

In the long run, this means better, more advanced technology overall, for all of us. Quantum measurement devices are more accurate. Quantum imaging devices can produce better pictures. Quantum batteries can charge faster. Quantum cybersecurity offers better protection. And quantum computers can solve problems no classical computer could ever hope to.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. In the short to mid-term, however, this also means we have something of an approaching crisis.

Skills crisis

Quantum technologies are disruptive, and more so in cybersecurity than any other field. Once large-scale quantum computers become available (which at the current rate could take another ten to 15 years), they could be used to access pretty much every secret on the internet. Online banking, private emails, passwords and secure chats would all be opened up. You would be able to impersonate any person or web page online.

This is because the information locks we use to secure privacy and authentication online are like butter to a quantum computer's hot knife. Quantum technology is disruptive in many other areas as well. If your business decides not to "go quantum" and your competitor or adversary does, you may well be at a strong disadvantage.

As the technology landscape realigns itself, it is quite likely that many tech professionals will see their skills turn obsolete very quickly. Simultaneously, companies may find themselves frantic to hire expertise that does not readily exist.

When geopolitical and market forces realign, it's common for people in business to say everyone now has to learn a new language. For example, as China has grown in power and influence, it is not uncommon in business communities to hear the phrase "we'll all have to learn Mandarin now". Perhaps it's time for all of us to start learning to speak quantum.

Explore further: How to certify a quantum computer

Related Stories

How to certify a quantum computer

November 5, 2018

Quantum computers are being developed by teams working not only at universities but also at Google, IBM, Microsoft and D-Wave, a start-up company. And things are evolving quickly, says Nicolas Sangouard, SNSF Professor at ...

First proof of quantum computer advantage

October 18, 2018

For many years, quantum computers were not much more than an idea. Today, companies, governments and intelligence agencies are investing in the development of quantum technology. Robert König, professor for the theory of ...

The exciting new age of quantum computing

October 25, 2016

What does the future hold for computing? Experts at the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT), based at Oxford University, believe our next great technological leap lies in the development of quantum computing.

Recommended for you

How fluid viscosity affects earthquake intensity

March 21, 2019

Fault zones play a key role in shaping the deformation of the Earth's crust. All of these zones contain fluids, which heavily influence how earthquakes propagate. In an article published today in Nature Communications, Chiara ...

Sustainable fisheries and conservation policy

March 21, 2019

There are roughly five times as many recreational fishers as commercial fishers throughout the world. And yet, the needs and peculiarities of these 220 million recreational fishers have largely been ignored in international ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 27, 2019
History shows us that technologies can experience rapid growth in use and capability once they become viable commercial products. After conventional digital computers became commercially viable, they experienced an exponential explosion referred to commonly as Moore's Law.

You also need a killer application to trigger a Moore growth, because the rate at which the technology improves is a process of feedback: the profits from using it are put back into development to gain more profits faster.

Simply being commercially viable, as in, it has some use, does not predict that it will have more use or that it will lead on a whole new paradigm shift. For example, electronic analog computers didn't become a thing, even though they are much more powerful than digital computers in certain problems.

We're on a similiar turnpoint in history where the head of IBM in 1943 said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.", and he was right for the time being.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.