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Can IBM fast-track quantum computing via the crowd?

IBM is giving the public an all-access pass to its cloud-enabled quantum computing platform. Is it a milestone in quantum computing or just a lot of noise? Also in Searchlight: Facebook rewards 10-year-old hacker; self-driving minivans to hit the road.

Are you ready to go where few techies have gone before? IBM is seeking computational frontiersmen and women to help it explore the outer limits of quantum computing.

In an effort to accelerate innovation and discover new use cases, the company has created IBM Quantum Experience, the first-ever cloud-enabled quantum computing platform that's available to anyone on any desktop or mobile device -- for free.

"Access to early quantum computing prototypes will be key in imagining and developing future applications," said Dario Gil, vice president of science and solutions of IBM Research, in a statement. "If you want to understand what a true quantum computer will do for you and how it works, this is the place to do it. You won't experience it anywhere else."

The platform is one of a kind, but how revolutionary is it really? I talked to analysts and researchers to get their take on the significance of IBM Quantum Experience and the impact this new form of computing could have on the enterprise.

Holger Mueller, principal analyst and VP at Constellation Research Inc., considers it a good move by IBM, describing it as a true "build it and they will come" scenario and a good showcase for a collaborative crowdsourcing process to innovation. "Gone are the days when all innovation could come out of the R&D ivory towers," he said.

The platform gives a broad community the opportunity to explore and will hopefully speed up the development of new ideas, according to David Cory, a professor with the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. But, ultimately, it's IBM that is set to benefit the most from the platform. "Quantum information science and quantum computing need more ideas -- IBM gets more people connected, and some of these new ideas will flow through IBM."

Tapping the crowd

Users of the service will soon have the opportunity to contribute and review their results and insights in a community hosted on the IBM Quantum Experience, as well as engage directly with IBM scientists, allowing the company to take full advantage of their crowdsourcing efforts.

Besides transforming material science, quantum computing could lead to significant developments in artificial intelligence and allow for search or analysis of much more data than can be handled by today's most powerful machines, Cory said.

"Quantum information processors offer the promise of more powerful sensors, secure communication and more efficient computation for selected problems (period finding and searching unordered lists as examples)," Cory said in an email.

Given that industries increasingly rely on big data to be competitive, quantum computing's revved-up processing power is something businesses should at least be thinking about exploiting, Constellation's Mueller said.

"Enterprises should look at use cases around decision management and prediction on top of big data clusters, where there is a good chance that quantum-computing-powered software -- taking advantage of its unique qubits architecture -- may yield different, and likely better, results than the existing algorithms and platforms," he said.

"With quantum computing this will be an even more radical … platform that can make better processes and decisions than traditional computing infrastructures," Mueller said. "It is also likely that less code will be needed for creating quantum-computing-based applications -- which is always a factor in time to market and maintenance of a new application."

Baby steps toward a quantum future

There are limitations to IBM's quantum computing cloud service. It still runs on only five qubits, which are the quantum computing counterparts to traditional, binary bits. Experts estimate that it could take a device running between 50 and 100 qubits to surpass the capabilities of today's fastest super computers.

Vern Brownell, president and CEO at D-Wave Systems Inc., a leading quantum computing company, is well aware of those limitations: "While it's a good step forward for IBM’s program, IBM notes it will take decades or more for a gate model quantum computer product to develop into a useful product," he said in an email.

While Brownell agrees that it will take the "collective efforts of many people and organizations to meet the challenge of quantum computing," he doesn't see IBM's "research processor" as a giant leap forward. In 2011, D-Wave productized a 128 qubit processor, and today their third-generation D-Wave 2X has more than 1000 qubits, he said. D-Wave's customers -- which include Lockheed/ISI, Google/NASA and the Los Alamos National Laboratory -- are using its systems at their facilities while others are using them over the Internet.

Still, it can't hurt to engage the multitudes, Cory said. Despite its small qubit capacity, he believes the platform's accessibility combined with IBM's robust implementation make it worth exploring, especially since any person with a first-course knowledge in quantum information would be able to program the IBM processor.

"Today there are many groups that are building toward a 50 qubit to 100 qubit device within 10 years, so now is a good time to start connecting people to the potential of quantum computing," Cory said.

CIO news roundup for week of May 2

You don't need quantum computing to find out what other technology news made headlines this week:

  • It's never too early to become a hacker -- an ethical one, that is. A 10-year-old hacker in Finland just became the youngest person to receive a payment from Facebook's Bug Bounty program, which rewards the practice of responsible disclosure. He got his $10,000 paycheck for pointing out a flaw in Instagram's API that allowed him to delete any given comment on the app. The boy's dream job is to have a career in computer security. He's off to a good start!
  • Who says minivans can't be cool? Google and Fiat Chrysler are teaming up to develop 100 self-driving minivans based on the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid-powered model. The partnership is being touted as the first time that a Silicon Valley firm has teamed with a traditional carmaker to develop an autonomous vehicle.
  • Dell is preparing to rebrand itself. After its momentous merger with EMC becomes official later this year, the new combined company will henceforth be known as Dell Technologies. The Dell Technologies umbrella will encompass a strategically aligned "family" of businesses, assures patriarch Michael Dell, including VMware, Virtustream and RSA.
  • The identity of Bitcoin's creator has finally been revealed -- or has it? Australian computer scientist and businessman Craig Wright came forward as being the man behind the technology and the one operating under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Many experts aren't convinced, so Wright promised to present "extraordinary proof" that his claim is legitimate. Wright then defaulted on his promise, claiming that he is "not strong enough for this" following attacks on his qualifications and character. The mystery of Satoshi Nakamoto lives on!
  • Facebook is in hot water for keeping a book of faces. The social networking giant lost the first round of a lawsuit accusing it of unlawfully storing biometric data mined from people's photos. Facebook creates what it calls a faceprint -- a geometric representation of a face -- for each of its users by tapping into its photo-tagging system. This practice is explained in Facebook's data policy, but the plaintiff argues that by not seeking explicit consent to collect users' biometrics, the social networking giant is breaking the law. If Facebook loses, other companies like Google would have to revisit their policies around facial recognition.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on  Apple's earnings report and Intel's massive job cuts.

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