An IBM quantum computer

In this IBM quantum computer, the processor is in the canister at the bottom.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

IBM unveiled on Wednesday improvements to quantum computing software that it expects will increase performance of its complex machines by a factor of 100, a development that builds on Big Blue’s progress in making the advanced computing hardware.

In a road map, the computing giant targeted the release of quantum computing applications over the next two years that will tackle challenges such as artificial intelligence and complex financial calculations. And it’s opening up lower level programming access that it expects will lead to a better foundation for those applications.

Much of the software will be written using open-source technology that outsiders can contribute to and benefit from, IBM said in a statement, adding the improvements will “lead to a 100x speedup.”

IBM’s planned quantum computing software releases are part of an effort to hide away as much of the quantum computing complexity as possible for ordinary folks. Getting a quantum computer to do useful work today is pretty tough, even with specialists like Zapata Computing and Cambridge Quantum Computing to hold your hand.

The software speedups could mean jobs that took months on a classical computer could be finished in a few hours. That would bring quantum computers closer to fulfilling their potential of solving problems out of reach of classical machines.

IBM is among competitors like Google, Intel, Microsoft, IonQ, Rigetti Computing and Honeywell racing for leadership in quantum computing. Where classical computing technology is relatively settled, quantum computers employ a wide variety of approaches. It’s not yet clear which among them will prevail as the technology fledges from research labs into real-world use.

At the heart of quantum computers are qubits, data storage and processing elements that can store a combination of one and zero. Quantum computers connect qubits through a quantum physics phenomenon called entanglement that lets a machine encompass an enormous number of possible solutions to a problem.

Operating a quantum computer involves applying a series of manipulations called gates to the qubits. With a specific sequence of gates, called a circuit, quantum computers can perform computations for particular tasks like simulating molecules or optimizing parts purchases, which BMW is trying on its complex supply chain. 

IBM’s quantum computing road map encompasses hardware and software improvements.


IBM

In coming years, IBM expects to add application modules and services to make those chores easier to tackle. At the lower level, it’ll offer steady improvements in circuit technology through 2026.

IBM is working on increasing the number of qubits in its quantum computers, from 27 in today’s “Falcon” to 1,121 in its “Condor” systems due in 2023. IBM expects in 2024 to investigate a key quantum computing technology called error correction that could make qubits much more stable and therefore capable, Jay Gambetta, IBM’s quantum computing vice president, said in a video.