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IBM’s Latest Quantum Processor Pushes the Limits of Existing Science

Published: November 26, 2021
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. - OCT. 18: IBM Q System One quantum computer viewed on Oct. 18, 2019 at IBM's research facility in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.. IBM’s latest quantum processor, Eagle, utilizes a record breaking 127-qubits dwarfing competitors machines. (Image: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

In what is being heralded as a “landmark achievement” IBM on Nov. 16, unveiled its Eagle 127-qubit quantum processor. IBM claims it’s the world’s largest superconducting quantum computer, which if verified, would mean this new computer processor surpasses state-of-the-art machines developed by Google as well as quantum computers developed by China.

Previous devices demonstrated up to 60 superconducting qubits, or quantum bits, working together to solve problems. IBM’s latest processor more than doubles the computing power of previous chips.

Technically, IBM’s new processor now takes the top spot as the largest, and therefore most powerful, superconducting quantum computer on the planet. 

In a press release, IBM stated, “Eagle is leading quantum computers into a new era — we’ve launched a quantum processor that has pushed us beyond the 100-qubit barrier. We anticipate that, with Eagle, our users will be able to explore uncharted computational territory — and experience a key milestone on the path towards practical quantum computation.” 

‘Quantum supremacy’

In 2019, Google claimed “quantum supremacy” with its 53-quibit Sycamore processor that the company claimed carried out a calculation in just 200 seconds that would take one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers 10,000 years to complete. 

IBM was quick to contest the claim arguing that with more developed classical algorithms, Summit — a supercomputer developed by IBM for use at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — could complete the calculation in just 2.5 days. 

The term “quantum supremacy” is loosely defined. In essence, quantum supremacy or the “quantum advantage” is the goal of demonstrating that a programmable quantum device can solve a problem that no classical supercomputer can solve in any feasible amount of time. 

Despite Google’s claims, many argue that this feat has, as of yet, not been demonstrated. IBM has not claimed its Eagle processor has broken this barrier.

Demonstrating this feat does not appear to be too far into the future though. A quantum processor with 300 qubits could theoretically perform more calculations, instantaneously, than there are atoms in the visible universe and at the rate quantum computers are developing this may be possible by mid-decade.

Quantum computers developing at a staggering pace

The rapid development of quantum computers has been described as progressing at a rate that is “double exponential.” 

Traditional computer processor development roughly followed a rule known as “Moore’s Law.” Wikipedia defines Moore’s Law as “ the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years.” This was the observable trend for decades. Not only did the number of transistors double, which doubled the computing power of the chip, but the cost of the devices halved every time the transistor count doubled making high performing consumer electronics, like smart phones, affordable for the masses.  

Researchers are now observing that quantum computers are developing at double this rate known as “Neven’s Law.”

Neven’s Law was coined after Harmut Neven, a quantum computer researcher, first pointed out the double exponential trend being observed in regards to quantum computer development.

Unlike exponential growth, double exponential growth has not been observed anywhere in the known universe. It very well may be a unique circumstance that can only be observed through the development of quantum computers.

The double exponential trend, researchers are observing, is due to the nature of qubits. While classical bits contain binary data, a one or a zero, a qubit is capable of representing numerous potential combinations of one and zero simultaneously. This means that with every additional qubit added to a processor it’s computing power increases significantly more than simply adding another transistor to a classical processor. 

What problems will quantum computers solve?

While the debate rages on about what practical problems quantum computers could solve there has been significant headway gained in areas where quantum computers are predicted to dominate.

Quantum technology is predicted to upend the fields of manufacturing and logistics, financial services including portfolio optimization as well as fields in life sciences like drug discovery, medical imaging and early disease detection.

Dwave, a Canadian company, has been selling and operating their quantum annealing computers for some time now. 

Dwave quantum computers are being used to address traffic congestion in large urban areas like  Beijing and, according to Dwave’s website, “Large pharma companies like GlaxoSmithKline and emerging biotech companies like Menten AI are already exploring how D-Wave quantum hybrid technology can enable faster and more efficient computer-aided drug design.”

Quantum computers could theoretically begin an age of discovery where scientific research is completed so quickly that it would be impossible for industry to keep up with the knowledge they provide; forcing us to leave ground breaking new technologies and discoveries on the shelf while others are brought to fruition simply due to time constraints. 

If IBM’s new Eagle processor tells us anything about where the technology is heading, it’s that, not long into the future, we will be awash with new discoveries as well as solutions to some of our oldest problems.