The quantum era: The world should get ready for quantum advantage

IBM has just installed its IBM Quantum System One in Shin-Kawasaki Sozo-no-Mori for Japan’s Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium (QIIC).

It’s the second IBM quantum computer outside of a lab, after one was brought to Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in June.

By Katia Moskvitch

Education. Workforce development. Quantum-ready infrastructure.

Quantum is about more than just technology. Crucial variables like these should propel us into quantum computing’s digital future — one that’s poised to revolutionize our world. Now that quantum computers are emerging, these are the variables we must get right.

For years, media coverage has mainly focused on the race to build a quantum computer with the most qubits. Indeed, the number of qubits matters, but so does how long qubits can stay in a quantum computational state, how many varieties of operations they can perform, and how fast the quantum system can execute the quantum programs. These, in turn, determine the complexity of problems a quantum computer can solve.

With industry and academia around the globe working tirelessly to advance quantum computing technologies, we think that indeed soon, a quantum computer should able to outperform its classical cousins at specific tasks. These processors will have demonstrated what we call a ‘quantum advantage.’ That will be a major feat.

IBM wants to ensure that the world is ready for an era of quantum advantage. Companies big and small should know how quantum computers can help them. University graduates in computer science should be able to create quantum algorithms, and there should be the necessary infrastructure to support these new machines, allowing them to process torrents of the world’s data via the cloud.

Quantum computers work thanks to the atoms’ ability to follow mathematical rules that don’t apply to human-scale objects. Atoms can be in multiple states at once, a property we call superposition. Two atoms can have correlated — linked — properties, despite the distance between them, which we call entanglement. And, when we combine multiple atoms with different properties, the values of certain atomic properties become more likely and of others — less. Qubits are artificial atoms, and follow these rules, too.

Make no mistake: we are at the very dawn of our quantum journey, and by the time the world starts relying on these machines, we hope that the experience will be frictionless — most users won’t even know when a program is employing a quantum processor. Meanwhile, programmers would need only to choose the right algorithm from a quantum app library, while the quantum processing would happen in the background.

But that’s the future. To get there, we need to make the world quantum-ready today — by focusing on education, workforce development, and future infrastructure in harmony with research. Bringing this technology to partners around the world — such as Fraunhofer and now the University of Tokyo — is a crucial first step.

We think that quantum processing power can improve different areas of our lives, with applications from chemistry to finance to space exploration and even manufacturing materials for next-generation batteries. These applications make for plenty of ways to excite high school pupils and to motivate university students to opt for a course in quantum computing.

And even if young people don’t necessarily go into studying quantum computing, there is a need to introduce them to the broader potential of this field. It’s important to nurture a quantum intuition at all education levels so that they can use quantum computers to help their everyday workflow.

There is still only a small number of universities around the world with quantum computing courses — an education gap that could seriously impact the development of a quantum-ready workforce.

Japan: an emerging quantum leader

Japan is among the leaders in quantum research. The country has also been making strides in quantum programming thanks to the Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium (QIIC), the IBM Quantum Hub at Keio University and Japan-IBM Quantum Partnership between the University of Tokyo and IBM Research. The goal of these initiatives is to speed up the collaboration between industry, academia, and government and help advance Japan’s leadership in quantum science, business, and education. Now, Japanese students, researchers and industry partners will also have dedicated access to IBM Quantum System One, located at the IBM Facility in the Shin-Kawasaki Sozo-no-Mori in Kawasaki City.

This partnership is an excellent foundation for the country’s quantum leadership. But we believe that a broader audience needs to get excited about quantum.

In Japan, government-funded National Institute of Information and Communications Technology has launched a quantum education program, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology Quantum Camp (NQC). The program aims to get young people, starting from high school students, interested in quantum computing. Through classroom and hands-on training, pupils learn quantum theory as well as programming, using the Qiskit open source software development kit.

That’s not all — Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology also offers Q-LEAP, a program with an emphasis on quantum education. Meanwhile, the Qiskit community team is continuing to localize Qiskit educational offerings, and create programming targeted specifically at students and researchers in East Asia and the Pacific.

The rest of the world should follow suit. Schools worldwide should tackle the quantum education gap together, setting the next generation of talent on quantum course from teenage years. Many already know the basics of quantum mechanics — let’s build on that curiosity and channel it into the quantum workforce of the near future.

Workforce development

Industry is beginning to explore what a quantum future will bring. Visionary banks, including Japan’s MUFG Bank and Mizuho Financial Group have been among the first to engage with quantum technology. Many more should join them. Today, banks use classical Monte-Carlo simulations to predict market shifts and estimate future investment opportunities. Perhaps soon, a quantum computer will zip through many more possibilities to produce a more accurate prediction faster.

Similarly, other industries will be able to benefit from this next generation technology — be it a pharmaceutical company looking for new drugs, a renewable energy company seeking more efficient materials for solar panels, or maybe even a robotic astronomy array dealing with an ever-surging deluge of data.

At the IBM Quantum Hub at Keio University in Tokyo, companies have used quantum computation for breakthrough research. This research includes discovering new materials for semiconductor chips, boosting the accuracy of risk analysis in finance, and paving the way for more efficient Li-ion batteries. Companies that are part of the QIIC members, including JSR, SONY, DIC, Toshiba, Toyota, Hitachi, Mizuho FG, SMTB, Mitsubishi Chemical, MUFG and Yokogawa Electric are getting ready for quantum advantage — and others should do so, too.

As a quantum computers could become a new tool to be a part of everyday business workflow, businesses should start thinking about employing a quantum-equipped workforce and training the existing one. Most companies currently have an IT department, and many include early adopters who are becoming quantum ready. And even if not, it’s likely that developers will be keen to jump onto something new, such as thinking about how to integrate quantum algorithms into their workflows.

Quantum infrastructure of the future

While education and workforce development need our immediate attention, scaling quantum infrastructure is further down the road. Still, it’s crucial that we prepare — through research, patented innovation and solid theory.

If we succeed in educating and developing a workforce, then more quantum computers will be needed than we have now. We expect that these devices will reside in quantum data centers alongside classical computers. Quantum and classical machines will work side-by-side, allowing users to tap into the power of both in real- and near-time via the cloud.

As IBM develops increasingly large processors, the data centers will need to create the necessary hardware and software infrastructure for the broadest access to this technology. And, of course, we must start planning how to make them as sustainable as possible.

We hope that using these machines will be as easy and straightforward for programmers as classical computers today. Without knowledge of quantum, companies and individuals will be able to develop quantum applications frictionlessly using quantum modules and libraries for their workflow.

Today’s research will help pave the way toward this future. But the world should focus on these crucial priorities: education, workforce development, and quantum-ready infrastructure. The time to start taking action is now.

This is the official Medium account of IBM Research. It’s managed by IBM Research Editorial Lead Katia Moskvitch & follows the IBM Social Computing Guidelines.