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A quantum leap?

 Quantum computing is finally here. Sort of.

A highlight of CES was the unveiling of what IBM called ‘the world’s first integrated quantum computing system’. Billions have been spent, and are being spent, on quantum research, but IBM certainly gets the prize for the bestlooking machine.

It’s sealed in a large, airtight glass box, inside of which is suspended a transparent tube, and what looks like Darth Vader’s cloak. I suppose it’s quite important how the thing looks, because IBM hasn’t released its specifications. The box was designed by Goppion, a Milan manufacturer of expensive museum display cases (it made the cases in which the Mona Lisa and the Crown Jewels are displayed). Why does it need such an impressive box? We’ll get to that in a moment.

On its performance, we’ll just have to take their word for it, because it’s not yet clear what true quantum even looks like, or what it’s going to be able to do. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of people hypothesising that it will be able to crack today’s cryptography, and provide analytics from big data at near instant speeds.

IBM has also not said how much it costs, or when it will be available.

It’s always nice to take a trip, in your mind, back 20 or 30 years, and remember what limited computing power was available, even to large enterprises. Still, we all muddled through, and speed, slowly, began to improve.

This, of course, gave rise to Moore’s Law, or the doubling of computing power every two years, but while the speed improves, it’s still what’s called a classical computer, and you can’t really compare this to the promise and power of quantum computing.

This is going to be the game changer, if you believe the hype, which, according to Gartner, is either at or near the peak of its hype cycle for emerging technology.

A key part of the puzzle, too, is going to be getting classical computers and quantum to interoperate.

How does it work?

There’s never been more interest in quantum, and it’s reached the C-suite, which is understandably keen to steal a march on competitors. Hype aside, quantum can’t be ignored, and it’s worth investing the time in some research, of which there's no shortage. The IBM website is a good place to start.

In short, and I really do mean short, this type of computing is centred around the quantum state of subatomic particles. Classical computing operates in a binary state, meaning information is stored in bits as either a one or a zero. Now you would think that a bit can’t be both a one and a zero at the same time, but this appears to happen in quantum computing. This quantum bit, or qubit, can be both one and zero, or a superposition of partly zero and partly one, at the same time.

Huh? I know, I know, but it's these properties, among others, which will allow quantum computers to manipulate information in new ways.

Why the box? Qubit measurement needs a stable environment, and even in a vacuum, loses its properties in microseconds. It’s also got to be constantly cold, damn cold, or as near to absolute zero as possible.

ar to absolute zero as possible. While IBM is to be applauded for this new technology (or at least being first to market), it’s unclear what anyone is going to actually be able to do with it. But apparently you’re going to need a more powerful machine with more qubits to begin to solve any problems that are out of reach of today’s computers.


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