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IBM's new future: Quantum computing

Patrick Thibodeau | June 16, 2011
Will IBM's last 100 years be remembered as its best?

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, and 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 may eventually be able to break cryptographic protections. One company, Security Innovation, 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. 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, D-Wave's 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 startups 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, startups will emerge to pose new challenges to the established companies.

IBM's Myerson has inventor credentials, having earned numerous patents and having made contributions to the development of silicon germanium technology.

 

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