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November 16, 2021updated 17 Nov 2021 4:17pm

IBM’s 127-qubit chip Eagle: Quantum computing may soon be too powerful to ignore

IBM says its new quantum chip will overtake classical computers in two years. Tech leaders should be starting to consider whether quantum computing can help their business, experts advise.

By Matthew Gooding

IBM has unveiled its latest quantum computing innovation, a new processor which it believes will help quantum machines outperform classical computers within two years. The IBM Eagle is the first quantum chip to pack in more than 100 qubits of processing power, Big Blue says, and its development is the latest indication that quantum computing is approaching maturity. For technology leaders in industries such as pharma, materials and financial services, it is time to get to grips with the technology, experts advise.

IBM Eagle quantum chip

An IBM quantum computer. The company this week unveiled its fastest ever quantum processor. (Photo courtesy IBM press office)

The Eagle landed at IBM’s Quantum summit event, which is taking place this week and also saw the company outline plans for the next generations of quantum processors. Thanks to advances in manufacturing and cooling technology, it expects to launch ‘Osprey’, a 433 qubit chip, in 2022, with the 1,121 qubit ‘Condor’ to follow.

These developments mean IBM is confident of reaching ‘quantum advantage’ – the point where quantum computers can outperform classical machines – sooner rather than later. “We believe that we will be able to reach a demonstration of quantum advantage – something that can have practical value – within the next couple of years,” said Dario Gil, IBM senior vice president and head of its research division. “That is our quest.”

IBM Eagle: is this a quantum computing breakthrough?

Quantum processors represent information in quantum form using qubits. Whereas a classical computer, which runs on bits, represents data as a one or a zero, quantum data can simultaneously be a one and a zero. In theory, this means a quantum computer can process information much faster and more efficiently than a classical machine. The technology is still in its early stages, and IBM has been one of the most active companies in the space.

While announcements like this are often surrounded by hype, Mike Orme, who covers the semiconductor market for GlobalData, says Eagle is an indicator that the next generation of quantum machines – so-called noisy intermediate-scaled quantum (NISQ) computers – will be in a position to challenge classical computers for certain applications within three years.

"We're not talking full-scale, fault-tolerant quantum computers," says Orme. "The physics and engineering are so fiendishly difficult that we won't see them this side of 2030 or even 2050. But a whole new breed of NISQ devices arriving by 2023/24 may be sufficiently powerful and reliable to add quantum speed to certain applications in materials science, drug discovery, options trading and portfolio construction. The likes of Volkswagen, AstraZeneca, and JP Morgan have been actively readying themselves with IBM for a couple of years now to achieve a 'quantum edge' as soon as the technology could deliver.''

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The significance of the Eagle announcement is less about its performance as the fact that IBM's quantum computing roadmap is on track, argues Jean-Francois Bobier, a partner and director at Boston Consulting Group

Further details will be needed to fully assess the Eagle's potential, particularly around the fidelity, or reliability, of the chip. "IBM has become a leader in this market, so if we can have confidence in its technology, and that it will continue to double the number of qubits in its processors every 12 months, that's very important."

He adds: "I don't think we will do super-exciting things on this chip, but it is proof that they are serious and they can deliver on what they promise, and for CIOs, if you have a roadmap you can trust then you can start to plan."

Should tech leaders be planning for the quantum computing era?

CIOs and other tech leaders looking at potential applications of quantum computing in their business must be aware that the technology will be good for solving specific problems, rather than as a general replacement for classical computing, says Brian Hopkins, VP principal analyst at Forrester. "This is going to happen modestly at first and today’s digital computers will still do most of the day-to-day work," he wrote following the IBM announcement.

BCG's Bobier says the majority of businesses he works with, from Fortune 500 companies to smaller organisations, are playing a waiting game when it comes to quantum. "About 90% of our clients are saying that they're happy to be 'fast followers' and do something when the technology is proven," he says. "They're happy to watch others put time and resources into quantum for now."

But, he says, this could be a dangerous tactic because the speed at which quantum power is growing means its impact on many industries will soon be unavoidable. "You might think 'it's 100 qubits, I don't care'," he says. "But by 2030, or even by 2025, we could have machines capable of solving very complex problems. These will be powerful enough that you can't overlook them anymore."

Being an early adopter could be an advantage for businesses in industries which are likely to present the initial use cases for quantum computing, Bobier says. "We believe the first industries that will be impacted will be things like chemicals and material science," he explains. "There will also be implications in other areas of science and financial services."

For companies in these industries, where the work of the quantum computer may produce something which can be patented, Bobier says those who get in early could reap the rewards. "If you can discover a new drug, or a type of environmentally friendly concrete, you can patent that discovery and get rich," he says. "Getting to the new chemical, material or drug first is very important, and in those industries it makes sense to invest now. For something like banking, it perhaps doesn't make as much sense, because if you find a better way to price options or assess risk [using quantum computing], it's fair to assume somebody else will relatively quickly duplicate your capabilities."

Moreover, Hopkins says tech leaders "need to be ready" for quantum. "It is time to ensure you have enough knowledge to make smart bets on where and when quantum advantage is likely to be reached."

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