A Quantum Computer Has Been Hooked Up to the Cloud For the First Time

You can now entangle quantum qubits directly from your smartphone.

A team at IBM has announced today that it has hooked up a quantum processor—housed at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in New York—to the cloud. For the first time in history, non-scientists and scientists alike can run quantum experiments from their desktop or mobile devices.

“It’s really about starting to have a new community of quantum learners,” said Jay Gambetta, manager of the Theory of Quantum Computing and Information Group at IBM. “We’re trying to take the mysteriousness out of quantum.”

The five-qubit processor is maintained at a temperature of 15 millikelvin. That’s 180 times colder than outer space.

IBM is calling the cloud-based quantum platform the IBM Research Quantum Experience (which consists of a simulator as well as the live processor), and it’s a step in the direction of creating a universal quantum computer: one that can perform any calculation that is in the realm of what quantum mechanics predicts. No such computer exists today, but IBM suspects that researchers will find the means to develop one within the next decade.

Quantum computing is a complicated beast compared to classical computing. Classical computers use bits to process information, where a bit represents either a zero or a one. Quantum computing, on other other hand, employs qubits—which represent either a zero, a one, or a superposition of both.

IBM’s quantum computer holds five superconducting qubits, a relatively small amount. The most expensive modern-day classical computer could emulate a 30- or 40-qubit system, the researchers say. So it’s not as though IBM’s cloud-based quantum processor is going to solve anything that scientists can’t already figure out using a classical computer. Instead, the strength of IBM’s processor is derived from its use as an educational tool—anyone who is curious can experiment, play with real qubits, and explore tutorials related to quantum computing.

In addition, scientists who access the processor will be able to use it to develop a better intuition for quantum computing. “We’ll know more about nature itself when we understand these algorithms,” Gambetta said. Specifically, experts can become more skilled at parsing quantum “noise,” or the uncertainty in physical characteristics of quantum nature. If they can minimize uncertainty—flukes in the system that cause the quantum computer to malfunction—in a small, five-qubit processor, then they can scale those lessons to create stronger quantum computers in the future.

Eventually, given the invention of 50- to 100-qubit processors, scientists may be able to deduce the complex behavior of molecules using quantum computing. They could even make significant strides in artificial intelligence, processing big data, and more.

IBM’s announcement also marks the launch of the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a consortium of organizations from various industries (including Samsung and Honda) that plans to collaborate on ground-breaking computing technologies. As classical computing becomes less relevant and Moore’s law starts to fade, such projects will become even more necessary. As Gambetta noted, the amount we know about quantum computing now is similar to what we knew about classical computing in the 1950s and 60s. It’s back to square one.

“Everything you know about computing, you have to relearn it,” he said.