IBM announced today that it is making one of its superconducting quantum processors accessible over the Internet. Those itching to try out such hardware will be able to get hands-on experience through a new quantum computing platform—at least, the experience will be as hands-on as it can be with hardware sealed inside a remote dilution refrigerator and cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.
With just five qubits, the chip won’t let you rapidly factor large numbers in order to break encryption. In fact, a classical simulation of this system takes less time to run, says Jay Gambetta, manager of the Theory of Quantum Computing and Information Group at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
IBM is offering software that will let people run a five-qubit quantum processor from any computer or mobile device. Proximity to a dilution refrigerator not required. Photo: IBM Research
But the goal of this tool, says Gambetta, “is to get people to start thinking quantum, to start thinking in terms of how a quantum computer works. Most people think quantum is hard or it’s spooky or it’s different. And yes it’s different, but it’s actually not hard.”
The portal, dubbed the IBM Quantum Experience, includes tutorials and a visual programming interface. Users can learn about algorithms and perform real quantum operations on the five-qubit chip, which is housed at the Watson facility. The aim is to have the chip be available 24-7, although it will go offline intermittently so that automated calibrations can be performed.
The chip is part of a family of superconducting quantum processors created at IBM that have their qubits arranged in lattices instead of in a line. Gambetta says this arrangement offers better connectivity between qubits for error correction, a key ingredient in the effort to scale quantum systems up to create a “universal quantum computer” that can solve certain problems far faster than conventional, classical computers.
Access to the chip will be free but not frictionless. “We don’t want a billion bots launching things and stopping real people from wanting to use it,” Gambetta says. He says that the group is developing a system that can assign coins to different types of users to grant access.
This is not the first time that a team has offered public access to quantum computing hardware. In 2013, a group at the University of Bristol launched a site that lets users practice programming and connect to a small optical system with two qubits. The ability to command that real-world hardware is currently offline, but the Bristol team says it aims to relaunch soon with a new chip and an upgraded user interface.
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.