IBM is marking its 100th anniversary by celebrating its record in technology innovation. It created DRAM, the disk drive and the magnetic strips used on credit cards, among many other inventions. It is one of the most inventive companies in the world.
But the computing industry is moving to a new future as disruptive and as radical as that brought by the introduction of silicon chips, and that's quantum computing. These are systems that use the behavior of subatomic particles to conduct calculations now performed with transistors on a chip.
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This is a future that may be anywhere from 10 to 20 or more years away. But if the potential of quantum computing is fully realized, it may trigger a development rush in chip and hardware design reminiscent of what Silicon Valley experienced decades ago.
"Think about the game changer we're now approaching," said Bernard Meyerson, IBM's vice president of innovation and a fellow at the company. It's Meyerson's job to help make sure that IBM's last 100 years aren't remembered as its best ones. That's one of the reasons he talks about the changes in the chip world.
Following Moore's Law, and then shrunk by another factor of 10 from the leading edge processors of today, these transistors become so small that "you cross into a quantum mechanical regime of operation - there's no precedent for that," Meyerson said.
But even once this shrink limit is reached, in about 10 years, progress will continue as engineers build tightly coupled systems with massive levels of integration on blocks of chips, as well as make improvements in memory, caching and speed processing, Meyerson said.
These continuous advances will extend the time frame to 20 years, but after that "you better have a helluva trick up your sleeve," said Meyerson. One of those tricks may be quantum computing.
IBM researchers have studied the theory and potential of quantum computing for years, and more recently they have been been experimenting with the concepts, said Bill Gallagher, the senior manager of quantum computing at IBM Research.
"It's one of our most significant fundamental research projects now, and maybe one of the largest fundamental ones," said Gallagher, There's been "good progress, but a long way to go," he said.
An ordinary computer is a collection of bits that can either be a 0 or a 1. But quantum bits can hold those states, 0 and 1, simultaneously. Instead of doing a calculation one after the other, the processing power in a quantum computer can increase exponentially. Two quantum bits, or qubits, can hold four distinct states, which can be processed simultaneously, three qubits can hold eight and 10 qubits can hold 1,024 states. In time, researchers expect machines with thousands of qubits.
But the subatomic world of quantum computing is daunting. Approaches to maintaining "quantum coherence," a stable state for the interaction of atoms and electrons running calculations, include processing at temperatures near absolute zero, or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, to reduce thermal interference, as well as by using superconducting metals. Lengthening the amount of time that a coherent state can be maintained is one of the challenges facing researchers.
While research continues, a quantum computing market is emerging.
One of the concerns is that quantum computers will eventually be able to break cryptographic protections. One company, Security Innovations, has already been thinking about the problem and has developed a public key algorithm, NTRUSignTM, that it says is resistant to quantum computing attacks. It recently received a patent.
"Anyone who is building systems that need to be secure in 10 years' time and are hard to upgrade should be thinking seriously about what happens if quantum computing comes around," said William Whyte, the chief scientist at Security Innovation.
Whyte's company is in the earliest wave of firms focused on the implications of quantum computing.
And as Whyte watches the quantum computing market develop, he sees an industry exploring a wide range of ideas and materials for building these systems.
"I think you are going to see a very creative outburst of ideas," said Whyte, with new companies sprouting up with the potential of "leapfrogging existing vendors."
One company that is building quantum computing systems is D-Wave Systems, of Burnaby, British Columbia. D-Wave announced last month that it had sold its first full system to Lockheed Martin Corp. The company's research was also published last month in the scientific journal Nature.
The company, which has been in business for 12 years, is working on a 128-qubit processor that is in its 23rd generation, said Geordie Rose, the co-founder and chief technology officer.
Quantum systems are intended to solve a class of problems that don't do well on conventional computers, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and logistics. These are problems that require the checking of an enormous number of possibilities in order to find the best answer, Rose said.
In the initial development phase, Rose believes start-ups have an advantage. "There's a lot less bureaucracy; the role of the visionary is a lot more important," he said.
D-Wave is also evidence that even in the new frontier of quantum computing, start-ups will emerge to pose new challenges to the established companies.
IBM's Myerson has inventor credentials, having earned numerous patents and made contributions to the development of silicon germanium technology.
Today, in his role of fostering innovation at IBM, Meyerson and his team are focused on providing the holistic, interdisciplinary integration that can lead to breakthroughs in new areas, but also ensuring that there is a process at IBM for continuous improvement of existing technologies.
Both approaches, the search for new breakthroughs and continuous improvement, are critical, said Meyerson. "What's unique about IBM is we have a culture that values both equally, because we recognized that the companies that haven't done so aren't with us any longer," he said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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This story, "IBM's new future: Quantum computing" was originally published by Computerworld.