After AI and blockchain, IBM tags quantum computing as new ‘game-changer’

Saying exponential problems require exponential computation, industry titan IBM is betting big that “quantum computing” will bring profound changes to the technology landscape more than what artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain – two tech trends which it also pioneered and helped developed – have done in recent years.

The facade of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York

This was the overarching message that Big Blue was trying to emphasize during a recent media tour of its New York facilities for members of the media from Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

At the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, its premier research and development laboratory located in Yorktown, IBM showed off the powerful quantum computing hardware and systems it is currently working on.

But, what exactly is quantum computing? As defined by IBM, it is a “rapidly-emerging technology that harnesses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for classical computers.”

What, then, are these problems which ordinary computers can’t address? According to IBM experts, these could be real-world problems like simulating natural disasters or solving financial data with complex structure, or creating next-generation battery technology needed for today’s power-hungry gadgets and electric vehicles.

At the heart of the company’s quantum computing push is the IBM Quantum System One – an interesting piece of hardware fondly dubbed “the chandelier” as it is suspended from the top —  that is encased in a refrigerated casing with constant temperatures near absolute zero.

The IBM Quantum System One
An IBM engineer explaining “The Chandelier”, a working model of what’s inside the IBM Quantum System One

The Quantum System One, according to IBM, runs the most powerful processor in the planet and is a fulfilment or embodiment of its decades-long quest to translate quantum theory to large-scale and practical computing where its potential to transform industries can be realized.

Jerry M. Chow, director of Quantum Infrastructure at IBM, said during a lecture session that quantum computing has triggered the first branching in the history of computing.

Chow explained that while tremendous progress has been made by the tech industry over the last 50 years, particularly in creating high-performance computers, quantum computing is an entirely different ballgame.  

“Because we’re relying on the laws of quantum mechanics, quantum computing gives us an advantage and effectively changes the way we compute and handle information in its most natural form,” said Chow, who is also an IBM Fellow, the highest honor a scientist, engineer, or programmer at IBM can achieve.

“IBM has played a critical leadership role in the development of the quantum computing industry,” he said, adding that the company has been studying and researching on quantum mechanics and computing as far back as the 1970s.  

With Moore’s Law as the driving force, Chow said the evolution of regular computers has been impressive. But he noted that its ability to bring complete and full transformation in various industries and human endeavors has yet to be fully realized.

“That’s why a lot of the theoretical elements of quantum mechanics could be really important in this game-changing era of development,” he said.

Unlike regular computers, the IBM exec said a quantum computer uses qubit – short for quantum bit, the basic unit of quantum information – that allows the processing of data exponentially faster. “And that has tremendous implications for things like security and other technology issues,” Chow said.

He recalled that it was in 2016 that IBM put an early version of a quantum computer in the cloud to have “at least a framework for how we want to evolve computation.”  

“We’re now into this phase of implementation where we’ve shifted from what we’ll call laboratory types of experiments to a mode of actually accessing the systems and using them as computational tools,” Chow said.

IBM’s director of Quantum Infrastructure Jerry Chow

Top IBM executives and researchers during the media event also emphasized that the power of quantum computing lies in its ability to leverage its unique structure to harness large data sets.

This exponential power, they said, is significant in solving problems that are really pushing the limits of traditional computers — from climate change to global health issues like Covid-19.

Developing countries and regions like Southeast Asia also stand to benefit from this big leap in technological advancement since the cloud – powered by quantum computing – can now deliver a more robust service to small businesses and government institutions alike, the IBM officials said.

“There are tremendous amounts of things which we know require a lot of computation, and the idea is that exponential problems require exponential solutions. Quantum computing will provide us that tool,” they said.

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