scorecardQuantum computing could change everything, and IBM is racing with Microsoft, Intel, and Google to conquer it. Here's what you need to know
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Quantum computing could change everything, and IBM is racing with Microsoft, Intel, and Google to conquer it. Here's what you need to know

Quantum computing could change everything, and IBM is racing with Microsoft, Intel, and Google to conquer it. Here's what you need to know
Tech12 min read

intel jim clarke


Jim Clarke, Intel's director of quantum hardware, with one of the company's quantum processors.

  • Quantum computers are an extremely exciting technology, promising the raw computing power to crack previously-unsolvable problems.
  • IBM has an early lead in quantum computing, experts say, with Google, Intel, Microsoft, and a host of startups close on its heels.
  • Investors are also excited about quantum computing startups, including IonQ, ColdQuanta, D-Wave Systems and Rigetti, all of whom could shake up this market.
  • However, there's a big catch: Modern quantum computers are generally not as powerful or as reliable as today's existing supercomputers, and they require extremely specific environmental conditions to run, to boot.

In January, IBM made waves when it announced its IBM Q System One, the world's first quantum computer available to businesses - a system housed in a sleek, 9-cubic-foot glass case.

It's a major milestone for quantum computers, which had to date mostly been found in research labs. Already, IBM says, customers are lining up to figure out how to get their hands on this technology, which shows promise in fields as varied as chemistry, materials science, food production, aerospace, drug discovery, predicting the stock market and even fighting climate change.



IBM Q System One

The reason for excitement: a quantum computer has seemingly-magical properties that allow it to process exponentially more information than a conventional system. A quantum computer isn't just a much faster computer. Rather, it's an entirely different paradigm of computing that requires some radical rethinking.

Now, the race is on to be the first company to conquer the massive opportunity presented by this technology. IBM, Microsoft, Google, and other tech titans and startups alike are all placing big bets on the technology. Meanwhile, in December, the U.S. government passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which proposes spending $1.2 billion over the next five years on labs, academia and companies to advance quantum computing technologies.

"We ask, what does it mean to make these systems accessible to people?" Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Q Strategy and Ecosystem, told Business Insider. "How will people access them? How more and more people can learn how to use quantum computers to solve things?"

Read more: IBM unveils the world's first quantum computer that businesses can actually use to solve previously impossible problems

But don't expect to see quantum computers in the office anytime soon: Experts we spoke to say that despite IBM's early toehold here, it'll still be five to ten years before quantum computing really hits the mainstream. IBM Q System One is currently only available as a cloud computing service to select customers; it'll be a while before anything like it will be something that people can buy and put to work on their own terms.

Indeed, experts tell Business Insider, quantum computers are extremely promising, but are a long ways away from being ready for the mainstream. They're extremely delicate, requiring certain conditions to function. Furthermore, quantum computers today are just not as reliable or as powerful as the computers we already have.

"We think it will be roughly a decade away before a quantum computer will change your life or mine," Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware at Intel, told Business Insider. "We're really just at mile 1 of a marathon here. It doesn't mean we shouldn't get excited about it."

What is a quantum computer?

Bill Gates once quipped that the math behind quantum was beyond even his understanding, but not everyone agrees.

"It's a little bit of a misconception that quantum physics is too much physics and too hard," Chris Monroe, CEO and co-founder of IonQ, told Business Insider. "What makes it inaccessible to many people is that it's weird. But it's as weird to me as it is to you. If something can be in superposition, that means it can be in two states at one time. It's weird because we have no experience with this in the real world."

The computers we're used to represent data as a string of 1's or 0's - that's why they call it binary code. However, a quantum computer can represent data as either a 1, a 0, or, importantly, both at the same time.

When a system can be in more than one states at the same time, this is called "superposition," - one of the seemingly-magical properties of quantum computing. The other key principle here is "entanglement," which is a quantum property which allows two particles to move in perfect sync, no matter how far apart they are physically.

As this article from Scientific American explains in greater technical depth, these two qualities combine to make a computer that can process far more data in parallel at once than any system on the market today.

The power of a quantum computer is measured in qubits, the most basic unit of measure in a quantum computer. In the same way that current computers have 32- or 64-bit processors, a measure of how much data they can process at once, a quantum computer with more qubits has higher levels of processing power.



The inside of a quantum computer

The sky's the limit

All of this means that a quantum computer can solve problems that were previously limited by raw computing power.

For instance, a quantum computer would be able to brute-force its way through the infamous traveling salesman problem, a difficult computing problem that requires finding the shortest possible route for a salesman between multiple cities before returning home. It sounds simple, but finding the single best path gets very complicated, mathematically speaking - especially as you add more cities to the salesman's route.

Similarly, a quantum computer would be able to muscle its way through the trickiest, most time-consuming problems, sifting tremendous amounts of financial, pharmaceutical, or climatological data to come up with optimized answers. Indeed, quantum startup D-Wave is already working with Volkswagen to analyze traffic patterns and sift all that tremendous noise for some useful insights.

A more controversial usage would be in cryptography: A quantum computer could force its way past any kind of known cypher, making it easy to decrypt even the most sensitive information. There's a strong interest in this usage from world governments, while activists worry that the advent of quantum computing could mean the end of privacy.

A physical challenge

Since quantum computing is still in its early stages, there's a lot about it that's still just unproven hype, says Matthew Brisse, research vice president at Gartner. But already, customers are watching the space to determine if quantum computing will bring competitive business advantages, he says.

Despite that hype, and the handwringing, experts say quantum computers are as far from the mainstream as PCs were in the 1950's. It's picking up steam, to be sure, but still moving slowly.

"The thing about quantum computing is you can think of it as a slowly moving train," Brian Hopkins, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, told Business Insider. "If it's going one inch a second, a month later it's going two inches a second. Pretty soon it will be moving really quickly."

A big problem right now is that there's nothing a quantum computer can do that a classical computer can't. The industry looks forward to a point called quantum supremacy, where quantum computers go beyond current limits, but it hasn't happened yet.

"When customers come to us, one of the things they tell us is they don't care what model as long as it can provide business value," Brisse, the analyst, said. "There isn't any model out there that can outpace classical algorithms. We're really having to wait for the maturity of the hardware to get up to speed."


Andy Aaron, IBM

IBM Research staff member Katie Pooley examines a cryostat, which helps quantum computers stay at cold temperatures

One big sticking point is just in terms of raw power. Quantum supremacy is expected to require a computer with 50 qubits. While that milestone has been reached in the lab, it's not quite stable enough to maintain. Indeed, qubits can be both error-prone and unstable, presenting another challenge in not only generating them, but making them more useful.

The other big factor is more physical. Quantum computers need to be completely isolated from their environment to function, and require extreme cold. Indeed, the barest vibrations can cause the qubits to collapse, taking them out of superposition, similarly to a kid pounding on a table and causing spinning coins to fall onto the table.

Early quantum computers, like IBM's Q System One, are so large that the required levels of isolation and cooling become a real challenge - with matters not helped by the fact that essential components, including superconducting cables and super-cooled refrigerators, are in short supply.

Ultimately, it means that while the science is proven and the technology is coming along, quantum computing is still almost entirely impractical.

"One of the challenges in my group is manipulating the materials, the silicons, the metals so we can create a very uniform environment," said Intel's Clarke. "This is basically semiconductor engineering at its finest. The technologies we need to make quantum computing at a large scale don't exist yet."

Another catch is that quantum computers have the undeniable potential to provide unforeseen computing power. But there aren't many people in this world who actually have experience coding or managing these systems, leaving even excited would-be customers trying to figure out how to actually take advantage.

Read more: BMW and Goldman Sachs are investing millions in a new kind of supercomputing that could change the world. But for now, nobody knows what to do with it

The great quantum race

Analysts say IBM is currently leading the race in quantum computing, such as it is, thanks to the limited commercial availability of the IBM Q System One. Because it's accessed via the cloud, IBM can maintain those very particular conditions to make this quantum computer function while still letting its select customers take advantage.

"I think [IBM's quantum computer] rocks," Brisse, the analyst, says. said. "I think the model of quantum computing as a service is the right model. By putting it in the container and addressing some of the noise issues, they really are trying to improve the quality."



Sarah Sheldon and Pat Gumann of IBM work on a quantum dilution refrigerator, which cools quantum computers.

That being said, analysts note that anyone could have a breakthrough at any moment that helps it pull ahead, and that it's still very much anybody's game.

Different tech titans are taking different approaches to the problem. Intel, IBM, Google, and the quantum computing startup Rigetti are building systems designed around superconducting circuits, taking their cues from today's conventional supercomputers.

Microsoft is taking a completely different, and perhaps riskier approach, in trying to build a better qubit. The topological qubit that Microsoft is trying to build would fragment electrons to store information in multiple places at the same time, making it more stable and less prone to collapse. It's far less proven than what its rivals are trying to build, but the payoff would be a major step forward for the whole field of quantum computing, says Hopkins, the analyst.

"They're taking a big gamble because a lot of people say they'll never succeed," Hopkins, said.

On the subject of gambles, startups like IonQ and D-Wave are staking their bets on cutting-edge technologies like ion trapping and quantum annealing, respectively - in short, different ways to juice more performance and reliability out of each qubit, using novel new methods.

"It allows us to build a quantum computer that solves problems and to continually make progress over large problems," Mark Johnson, vice president of processor design and development and quantum products at D-Wave, told Business Insider.


Connie Zhou for IBM

An IBM quantum scientist walks across the IBM Q computation center at the Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

Quantum startups

The rising tide of quantum computing has resulted in a wave of investor interest in related startups. IBM's Sutor estimates that there are about 100 startups around the world, in quantum software, hardware, and even consulting. That's small compared to the larger startup market, but far more than there used to be.

"I've been in the field a real long time since the beginning," IonQ's Monroe said. "It's been a nascent field for a long time until 5-8 years ago when industry started not only paying attention but making big investments. They realized it was time."



Chris Monroe, CEO and co-founder of quantum computing startup IonQ

Some, like Rigetti, are willing to take the tech titans on head-to-head with their own quantum chips and complete quantum computing systems.

"It's the focus of our commercial existence," Betsy Masiello, VP of product at Rigetti, told Business Insider. "There are plenty of companies that are in the quantum space that are working for software applications in quantum computing. We're manufacturing chips and we're building computing systems."

Matthew Kinsella, managing director at Maverick Ventures, says he's bullish on quantum computing - his firm has gone so far as to invest in ColdQuanta, a company that makes equipment for use in quantum systems. He expects that it'll be a solid five to ten years until quantum computers outperform today's systems, but Maverick is in it for the long haul.

"I really believe in quantum computing although it may be longer than some originally thought before we have a generalizable quantum computer that is better than a traditional computer at solving real world problems, although we may get some announcements of interesting smaller-scale optimization problems being done in the next few years," Kinsella told Business Insider.

2000Q Systems in Lab (3)


D-Wave's 2000Q Systems in the lab

But Kinsella, like the analysts we spoke to, also expect what's called a "quantum winter." There may be hype around quantum computers, but people are getting ahead of themselves, warn these experts. The machines aren't ready yet, and it won't be years before investors start to see results.

Looking forward

Even past the point of quantum supremacy, experts in the field tell us that there will still be a place for conventional computers and supercomputers. In the meanwhile, there's lots that has to be done with cost, scale, reliability, and processing power before we can even have that conversation.

"Everyone's got to take a deep breath with quantum," Brisse, the analyst, said. "There's lots of exciting things going on, but it's going to take time. It's the conglomeration of physics, computer science and quite frankly, research. We wouldn't have to research it if we knew all the answers, and there's going to be a significant amount of research going forward."

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Rigetti's quantum computer

Still, it's clear to many that this is the wave of the future. In the same way that the makers of the first mainframe computer didn't realize that it would eventually lead to the rise of the pocketable, palm-sized smartphone, the quantum computer could be the first step down a totally new path.

Some, like Microsoft Corporate VP of Quantum Todd Holmdahl, are optimistic enough to say that it could be bigger than today's push towards artificial intelligence and machine learning. He used to tell his kids that they should do what they're passionate about, but that they can always get a job in AI. Now, he'd say it about quantum computing.

"It's a field that's going to grow. We need a number of people to sustain and staff it," Holmdahl said. "This will be the biggest thing in our generation. This is going to be able to do amazing things in the future."

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