Want to run apps on IBM's quantum cloud? Don't hold your breath

Plans to offer quantum computer access via IBM's cloud platform are vapor until we can run real-world apps on it

Want to run apps on IBM's quantum cloud? Don't hold your breath
Stef Simmons (CC-BY 2.0)

IBM has unveiled a plan to provide access to its five-qubit quantum processor through the cloud to allow "students, researchers, and general science enthusiasts hands-on access to IBM's experimental cloud-enabled quantum computing platform."

But don't expect to use the IBM Quantum Experience as a development platform for serious applications anytime soon. IBM appears to be delivering the service mostly as a proof of concept -- to signal its intentions to competitors and get developers used to the idea of what could, one day, be quantum computing as a service.

In fact, don't expect to use the IBM Quantum Experience anytime soon, period. Right now, the only thing IBM is providing is a sign-up form to request an invitation to use it. The matter of who will be given access is still up in the air, as is the pricing structure (if any).

Few people question that IBM is serious about making quantum computing a reality. The company garnered attention last year for developing an error-correction system for quantum computing that formed the basis of the five-qubit system that will be offered via IBM Quantum Experience.

But five qubits only provides the kind of computational power that's still within the reach of "classical" computers. In fact, one of the Quantum Experience's planned functions is a simulation of a five-qubit system on conventional computing hardware. As a result, the first workloads that IBM plans to offer on Quantum Experience will be correspondingly simple -- such as Grover's algorithm, a quantum search function.

If a five-qubit system can be simulated conventionally -- if it's no more powerful than existing computer hardware -- why offer it at all? IBM contends that five genuine qubits are better than none, since it will allow early adopters to become familiar with quantum computing's quirks.

A genuine quantum system will have noise and errors, an IBM spokesperson explained. "Many quantum scientists are interested in seeing this noise so they can come up with new quantum codes to protect their quantum algorithms," the spokesperson said in an email. "Without access to real hardware, they don't know how their ideas would be play on actual systems and what noise or errors might occur." 

IBM's long-term plan for quantum computing is to create a system with anywhere from 50 to 100 qubits -- a system it claims couldn't be simulated even by today's supercomputers. There's no road map for how long that will take to deliver, but IBM aims to create an environment where people can start thinking about practical applications now.

IBM Quantum Experience also works as a shot across the bow to competitors tinkering with quantum computing. Google has shown interest in quantum computing using a quantum machine created by D-Wave Systems. That said, Google hasn't announced plans for a publicly available quantum product.

The downside for IBM is that right now there are not many real-world applications for its quantum computing setup -- it's "a research effort and not a commercial service," the IBM spokesperson said. It has not yet been determined how Quantum Experience could be turned into a consumable service like IBM Watson or the other Bluemix options.

Quantum Experience would be most useful if it could be plugged into existing data and used to process it at far greater speeds than conventional computing systems. But there's no telling how long it'll take before IBM can put enough qubits online to make that happen -- or what kind of work will be involved to build a bridge between IBM's quantum hardware and the data stored in its legacy computing environments.

For now, the plan is to get people used to the idea of quantum computing, then "see what will be the demand to leverage the quantum computing framework in new ways that we may offer in the future."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.