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With quantum computers here, developers seek uses

Agam Shah | March 14, 2017
Don't think of using quantum computers for email or word processing

After decades of research, the first quantum computers are now up and running. The question now is: What do we do with them?

IBM and D-Wave are trying to cash in on their expensive quantum computers by commercializing services. Both agree that quantum computers are different than PCs and can't be used to run every application.

Instead, quantum systems will do things not possible on today's computers, like discovering new drugs and building molecular structures. Today's computers are good at finding answers by analyzing information within existing data sets, but quantum computers can get a wider range of answers by calculating and assuming new data sets.

Quantum computers can be significantly faster and could eventually replace today's PCs and servers. Quantum computing is one way to advance computing as today's systems reach their physical and structural limits.

Progress has been slow, but researchers are discovering uses for existing quantum computers like D-Wave's 2000Q, which has 2,000 qubits, and IBM's 5-qubit systems. Both are based on different technologies, with IBM's system being complex and more advanced in terms of technology. D-Wave's quantum annealing system is a more practical and quick way to quantum computing but is much faster than today's PCs.

Google, NASA, and Universities Space Research Association (USRA) are installing the D-Wave 2000Q system at NASA's Ames Research Center to use for artificial intelligence and machine learning. The organizations hope to use the quantum computer for "optimization," which can derive the best possible solution to problems based on a wide range of possibilities. NASA has used D-Wave quantum computers for robotics missions in space, while Google has used it for search, image labeling, and voice recognition.

On Monday, car maker Volkswagen said it is using D-Wave's system to predict traffic patterns of cabs in Beijing. The company developed an algorithm that could improve the flow of cabs in the city, which would reduce the time it would take to hail a cab. The study, which used sample data from 10,000 Beijing cabs, also focused on understanding the power of a quantum computer. The official quantum software program to optimize traffic flow will be shown by Volkswagen and D-Wave at Cebit next week.

D-Wave ultimately hopes to make its quantum computer available via the cloud much like IBM, which has launched the Q program for paid quantum computing services. IBM announced the Q program last week and plans to build a 50-qubit quantum computer in the coming years as part of the service.

IBM's quantum computer is targeted at scientific applications like material sciences and quantum dynamics and is tied to the use of classical algorithms. For example, one use relates to Grover's algorithm, which can help find answers from unstructured databases much quicker than conventional computers.

 

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