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IBM Quantum Computing Scientists Hanhee Paik (left) and Sarah Sheldon (right) examine the hardware inside an open dilution fridge at the IBM Q Lab at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, NY. (Photo: Connie Zhou for IBM)

IBM today unveiled plans to build commercially-available quantum computer systems for business and science that will be accessed via the IBM Cloud. Known as “IBM Q”, these quantum systems will be aimed at tackling tough computational problems where vast numbers of possible outcomes of a computational task need to be explored simultaneously.

“While technologies that currently run on classical computers, such as Watson, can help find patterns and insights buried in vast amounts of existing data, quantum computers will deliver solutions to important problems where patterns cannot be seen because the data doesn’t exist and the possibilities that you need to explore to get to the answer are too enormous to ever be processed by classical computers,” explained the company in its announcement about the IBM Q initiative.

Quantum computing is a much sought-after capability that many in the tech sector have been pursuing for years, holding the promise of new breakthroughs and discoveries by processing vast amounts of data.

Google, for example, has ongoing “Quantum AI” work that is being used to tackle challenges such as the modeling of molecular energy, and has been working with NASA and a Vancouver-area company called D-Wave to evaluate quantum computer designs. Microsoft leads the Station Q research consortium, focusing on research into the “mathematics and physics of topological quantum computation,” and is also building a quantum computer.

IBM sought to differentiate its technologies in its announcement today: “Unlike highly specialized and limited approaches to quantum computing, the universal quantum computers IBM plans to build are the only systems proven to be exponentially more capable than existing classical computing.”

The company also said that it’s making a new API (Application Program Interface) available for the IBM Quantum Experience that it says will enable developers and programmers to create connections “between its existing five quantum bit (qubit) cloud-based quantum computer and classical computers, without developers needing to have a deep background in quantum physics.” A qubit is the basic unit of information in quantum computing systems (analogous to the “bit” in a conventional computer).

In a further effort to target developers, IBM is producing a simulator on its Quantum Experience portal that can model circuits with up to 20 qubits. IBM has also committed to release a full SDK (Software Development Kit) on the IBM Quantum Experience in the first half of 2017 for users to build simple quantum applications and software programs.

According to Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems, “classical computers” will continue to evolve — rather than being replaced by — quantum computers.

“Classical computers are extraordinarily powerful and will continue to advance and underpin everything we do in business and society. But there are many problems that will never be penetrated by a classical computer. To create knowledge from much greater depths of complexity, we need a quantum computer,” he said. “We envision IBM Q systems working in concert with our portfolio of classical high-performance systems to address problems that are currently unsolvable, but hold tremendous untapped value.”

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