Quantum chance: how IBM builds an ecosystem for the computer of the future

“For the quantum – the future” – a popular stamp among technology enthusiasts. But for IBM, these are not just empty words, but a well thought out plan. A corporation with a hundred-year history recently lags behind in the race of innovations to smartphone manufacturers, social networks and Internet services. Therefore, the bet on the creation of the first universal quantum computer and the construction of a full ecosystem around the device is a chance for IBM to again become the leader.

And the corporation is trying: Russian and foreign experts interviewed by RBC magazine call it one of the world leaders in the development of a quantum computer. In 2014, IBM announced its intention to invest $ 3 billion over five years in supernova technology, much of this amount will be spent on a quantum project, and in 2017 launched a special unit of IBM Q. From all technological giants who have projects in this sphere, IBM distinguishes the system approach: the company builds a real quantum ecosystem.

Quantum computer IBM is developed in the company’s laboratory in Switzerland. The installation at a height of 3 m consists of several blocks with different temperature conditions, each responsible for its part of the process of quantum computing. Outside – a protective metal casing. All components are sensitive to changes in the environment: even such a trifle as repair work a few kilometers from the computer, can affect the accuracy of calculations.

For effective operation, the installation must be strongly cooled – this is the condition for the appearance of superconductivity, in which the device runs from IBM. At the first stage of the installation, the temperature is only 4K (-269ºC) – colder than in the open space, and close to absolute zero. Here is one of the signal amplifiers emanating from the qubits (q-bits, the basic element for storing information in a quantum computer, RBC), and the microwave control input lines for the rest of the device. This stage is cooled, including for leveling the temperature jumps when interacting with other components.

The second stage is also the input lines, the third is superconducting coaxial cables capable of transmitting a signal between quantum components and a classical computer that controls a quantum system. The cables include niobium and its alloy with titanium. With strong cooling, this material passes into a superconducting state.

Also at the third stage – cryogenic insulators and a mixing chamber, which are responsible for maintaining the temperature. The fourth, last, step is the processor itself and the quantum amplifiers, which make it possible to read the signals of the processor and reduce the “noise” that interferes with the calculations. The processor is in a separate protective chamber – it does not let out electromagnetic radiation, which can affect the qubits and spoil the results of the calculations.

The need for such protection is also related to the specifics of IBM’s devices for working with qubits: they are based on superconducting electronic circuits and use niobium, aluminum and silicon as the main materials. Of the niobium, capacitors are made, aluminum goes to the non-linear bridge connecting the two capacitors, and silicon serves as the basis for the chip. Since the elements of aluminum are several times thinner than the hair, they are subject to any vibrations and radiations.

Superconductor chips are most often used in the manufacture of quantum computers. Other platforms for creating qubits (ion traps, cold atoms) are more common in laboratory projects and are rarely found in commercially oriented solutions.

Problems for 50 qubits

A quantum computer from IBM is a vivid example of the achievements and problems inherent in such modern developments. From competitors, the IBM device is distinguished by the technology of manufacturing processors. On the printed circuit board are placed several resonators, peculiar “road junctions” for light beams. Their task is to provide the maximum coherence time of the system, that is, the time for which the system can perform calculations without data loss. The location of the qubits in the chip on the PCB depends on the number of these qubits.

The main problem of the device, which is also inherent in the projects of all industry leaders, is that it can not perform quantum computing on an ongoing basis (and not just in a short time), and also can not store the results of these calculations. Classify the flaws by using classical systems connected to a quantum installation and creating a kind of hybrid system. Now a regular computer is an integral part of the quantum computer: for binary logic, for example, lasers are controlled and other parameters of the quantum system are monitored. Information obtained as a result of calculations on a quantum device is also interpreted by means of a PC.

In the IBM laboratory, we managed to simulate a 56-Kbit processor, but the company notes that the industry has artificially set itself a limit of 50 qubits and it is not at all the main criterion of the system’s power. Especially since this bar was repeatedly taken and the company D-Wave with its computers capacity of 2 thousand qubits, and most IBM. “The number of qubits does not mean growth as a calculation. Problems that were on five qubits, and remain at 50, “- explains in one of the training videos IBM Research Officer Lev Bishop.

According to the scientist, manufacturers need to concentrate on the quantum volume – a parameter that allows us to evaluate a quantum computer in terms of the number of errors in the calculations. It was suggested by Bishop himself: an increase in the number of qubits without correction of errors, he said, inevitably leads to a decrease in the efficiency of calculations. At the moment, out of 100 operations performed on a 5-qubit processor, one will be erroneous, and with an increase in the number of qubits, the percentage of rejects in computations will also grow, according to calculations by IBM.

IBM hopes to improve the quality of the quantum computer in the coming months. Within the framework of the organization IBM Research Frontiers Institute, the consortium of researchers assesses the possibility of commercial use of technologies, including in the field of quantum computing. Among the founders are Samsung, JSR, Honda, Hitachi Metals and Nasage. According to IBM, a “universal” quantum computer is planned to be launched in 2018.

Based on the IBM Quantum Experience cloud service launched in 2016, which is now used by scientists and enthusiasts for free, a platform is created for which the companies participating in the experiment will pay for access. The service will allow you to optimize business processes in large corporations, use the power of a quantum computer to work on artificial intelligence and so on.

The mass distribution of technology is still limited by the complexity of its scaling: a refrigeration unit capable of 4K, for example, is not so easy to reduce.

Interface in the cloud

In addition to building a universal quantum computer, IBM aims to create a community of developers and users. The PC was also once grounded for the solution of specialized tasks and could foresee its transformation into mass technology units, reminded the company.

IBM regularly releases training videos and demonstrates developments in profile exhibitions, for example in our flickr account – https://www.flickr.com/people/electronicsrepair/

Also, the company was the first competitor to open two versions of the quantum installation for 5 and 16 qubits in open access and plans to present the third one in the near future to 20. The interaction with the user takes place in the IBM Quantum Experience cloud service.

After registration, the user is offered a choice of two types of interface, different in complexity. At the initial level, you can use flowcharts to write simple programs. The basic interface, available in any modern browser, is similar to programs for writing music: the same columns and lines. Place on them, however, suggested commands for the computer. With the help of instructions from IBM, any user can familiarize himself with the basics of the operation of a quantum computer. A more advanced version offers a text editor for programming. To work with the cloud, no additional hardware is required, only a keyboard and mouse. The service also offers a full instruction and demonstration of opportunities.

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