IBM taps big firms in quantum computing experiment

LONDON • International Business Machines (IBM) has signed up several prominent banks as well as industrial and technology companies to start experimenting with its quantum computers.

JPMorgan Chase & Co and Barclays Bank are among 12 organisations IBM selected to get early access to its latest quantum computing technology, which could eventually help solve difficult problems beyond the reach of any conventional supercomputer. Carmakers Daimler and Honda Motor, technology giant Samsung Electronics, chemicals companies JSR Corp and Nagase & Co, and specialty materials firm Hitachi Metals are also in the group.

Many of the most promising potential applications for quantum computers involve creating new chemical catalysts or engineering new materials with exotic properties. IBM is competing with Alphabet's Google, Microsoft, Intel, Canadian firm D-Wave Systems and California-based Rigetti Computing, as well as a number of other start-ups to commercialise the technology.

Many of these companies plan to offer access to quantum computers through their cloud computing networks and see it as a future selling point. For now, quantum computers still remain too small and the error rates in calculations are too high for the machines to be useful for most real-world applications.

IBM will give the companies it has selected for its early access program,  called the Q Network, access to a 20-qubit quantum computer through the cloud. While such a computer can theoretically perform over one million simultaneous calculations, that compares to classically designed supercomputers that can perform tens of thousands of trillions of calculations per second.

What's more, quantum computers like IBM's cannot make calculations without accruing errors that can make its results useless for many practical applications.

By giving the companies access to quantum computers, however, IBM is banking on hooking them early on the emerging technology so that when more powerful machines are ready, the companies will already be comfortable with the systems.

IBM has also recently tested a prototype of a 50-qubit quantum computer - which is approaching a threshold known as "quantum supremacy", where it may be able to perform calculations beyond the reach of a classical supercomputer.

But it still produces errors. IBM said it would let the firms in its early access program begin experimenting with this size machine through the cloud in the near future. JPMorgan said it would partner with IBM to explore whether quantum computers can be used for trading strategies, portfolio optimisation, asset pricing and risk analysis.

Daimler said it would investigate how quantum computers might help it perfect its manufacturing processes, route fleets of self-driving cars or help the company develop new materials for cars. Samsung said it would be looking at what impact quantum computing might have on semiconductors, while JSR said it would research chemical and material applications.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2017, with the headline 'IBM taps big firms in quantum computing experiment'. Print Edition | Subscribe