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January 11, 2018updated 12 Jan 2018 8:42am

IBM, Google and Intel jostle for quantum computing supremacy

IBM, Intel and Google have all recently announced advancements in quantum computing capabilities.

By Sabrina Dougall

Quantum computing is gaining momentum as the golden child of IT investment, with the US Department of Energy finally signing on the dotted line to back its development.

Although the US administration currently allocates around $250m for quantum computing annually, this funding is predominantly for military use. Now, the Energy Department has pledged $40m specifically for the development of quantum computing algorithms for use in general sciences, including materials and chemistry.

Meanwhile, tech conglomerates have been funding international academic work in a bid to be the first to attain the quantum supremacy: the creation of a machine with greater compute capability than any previous model. IBM unveiled its “game-changing” 50-qubit quantum at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week.

IBM inventors told press its latest machine represents the latest in AI capability and will be shared with companies in the automotive, financial and materials sectors. IBM’s first 50-qubit chip is so precious it must be held at 10 milliKelvin (-273.14 Celsius) in order to keep it free from environmental interference.

The jewel in the crown of quantum computers is their ability to store vastly greater amounts of data per bit (1 or 0) than a traditional machine – making an enormous energy saving. A quantum computer takes advantage of the possibility of a qubit to take up a quantum superposition, potentially existing as a 1 or 0 at the same time.

IBM’s quantum computing programme, known as IBM Q, has garnered attention from Barclays, Daimler, Honda, JP Morgan and Samsung, all of whom have struck partnership deals to leverage massive data processing capability for business ends.

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Major competitors in the quantum competition are Google, Microsoft and Intel. This week, Google experts began tests of a 50-qubit chip, following on from a quantum software release in October. Meanwhile Intel confirmed at CES 2018 this week that their teams have produced a 49-qubit chip – a major advance for the company which unveiled its 17-qubit model just two months prior.

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While the realisation of viable quantum computers for everyday business use is some years off, advances in silicon chips may form the foundation of commercially affordable machines in the not-too-distant future. A smattering of researchers at Princeton University, the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia are working on fast-moving projects in the field.

James Clarke, Head of quantum computing at Intel, told Nature magazine silicon is set to be the next big thing in the quantum computing industry – the reason being that if the semiconductor could be used to code qubits, then commercial manufacturing suddenly becomes a much more distinct possibility. This eventuality may come to pass within the next decade, as two separate research groups have already produced the first fully controllable two-qubit silicon devices.

In the meantime IBM, Google and Intel itself are not hoarding all their eggs in a silicon basket and continue to aim at producing quantum machines with superconducting qubits.

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