In May 1981, IBM and MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science jointly organised The Physics of Computation conference. This conference was attended by several physicists and computer scientists, including Nobel laureate Richard Feynmann. This conference turned out to be one of the momentous occasions in the history of quantum computing.
As told by Charlie Bennett, a distinguished physicist who was part of the IBM Research contingent at the event, in an interview, Feynman said, “He just said the world is quantum. So, if you really wanted to build a computer to simulate physics, that should probably be a quantum computer.”
This was probably the conference that kickstarted the conversation and research in quantum computing as we know it today.
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Interestingly, IBM which organised this conference has been since then diligently working in this field, emerging as a major player. Sensing such vast potential in this technology, a company like IBM wasted no opportunity to dive headfirst in its development.
That said, this makes one wonder about the actual progress that IBM has made in this field and whether this investment is totally worth it.
IBM & Quantum Computing
IBM makes most of its revenue through its money selling business software and middleware, data hosting, and helping companies manage their data which lives on IBM’s servers. Thus, quantum computing seems to be IBM’s bid to reinvent itself and develop it as a technology from a theoretical stage to render actual business RoI.
In 2020, IBM released a roadmap for scaling quantum computing. As part of this roadmap, IBM hoped to develop a suite of scalable, larger and better processors with a 1,000-plus qubit device called the IBM Quantum Condor, to be released by the end of 2023. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna re-iterated this goal in a recent interview too. He believes that once such a scale is achieved, the technology will ‘take off like a rocket ship’.
In its quantum endeavour, IBM has managed to achieve several firsts. This includes initiating the first step in building an ecosystem, releasing the open-source quantum software development kit called QISKit , rolling out IBM Q Consulting to help enterprises become quantum ready. IBM also added new APIs to Quantum Experience to help researchers build more advanced applications. Besides that, IBM is the first company to launch quantum computers on the cloud.
All these initiatives have propelled IBM to a leadership position even when there is competition from bigger companies like Google.
Is it worth it?
Despite all the hullabaloo around quantum computing, many experts believe that it is nothing more than just hype, at least in its current form. Many believe that quantum computing is still in the research stage and is not quite equipped to tackle real-world problems. In an interview, William Hurley, founder of Strangeworks, the startup that serves as a community hub for developers working on quantum algorithms, said that quantum technology offers great equipment for exploiting the quantum space, but they are not really computers. He added that these systems could not solve anything that a regular can’t, and also, they require a classical computer attached to them.
Besides this, quantum computers need to be put to rest or in idle mode after it finishes running its algorithm; else, the quantum entanglement would collapse, and qubits would lose their superposition, a phenomenon known as decoherence. This is strong evidence of quantum computers’ fragile nature. Furthermore, the decoherence state is hastened due to harmless radiation from common objects like concrete walls. This makes it very difficult to install such systems outside of special facilities, thus making it difficult for commercial usage.
Not just IBM and other private companies, governments around the world are betting hard on this technology, hoping to be the first to harness its potential. This would definitely take a lot of time, but the actual worry among the research community is whether the technology can fully deliver on the inflated expectation.
To bust some of these inflated claims on quantum computing, an anonymous Twitter account called Quantum Bullshit Detector started calling out ‘bullshit’ or ‘not-bullshit’ on specific articles.
In the past, too, IBM has suffered from over-optimism over certain technologies or initiatives; the classic example is IBM Watson. IBM overpromised but was not able to deliver, especially on the healthcare AI front.
IBM’s attempt to revolutionise healthcare using AI via Watson started sometime in 2011. The company gained great confidence by impressive performance in error diagnosis, treatment optimisation, and assisting medical practitioners, albeit in controlled environments.
The hitch was that IBM’s powerful technology failed when applied to messy on-ground realities of healthcare. For example, IBM failed miserably when it tried to apply Watson to cancer treatment. The system encountered a serious mismatch between the way machines learn and the way doctors work. In February this year, there were strong rumours of IBM planning to sell off Watson Health.
The fate stored for its quantum computing business is to be seen.
Update: In the earlier copy of the article, it was incorrectly mentioned that IBM was the second company to put quantum computing services on cloud. It has been corrected to IBM is the first company to launch quantum computer on cloud.