For decades, quantum computing has been the preserve of research labs and multi-million dollar business institutions. Today, IBM made its working prototype quantum computer accessible via the internet — and literally anyone can use it.
The company has made a five-qubit quantum computer — which sits in a New York lab — remotely accessible using a piece of special software. It's not for the faint-hearted: The user-friendly interface, shown below, still requires you to understand how quantum devices work, which is well beyond the comprehension of many of us.
Quantum computer simulators have been made available online before, but to my knowledge this is the first time that hardware has been opened up for widespread public use. Cynics may — quite rightly — suggest that the process allows IBM chance for a little self-promotion.
But the announcement's more important than that. Opening access to a real quantum device for students, researchers and plain-old nerds that wouldn't otherwise have the chance to play with the hardware means more person hours can be spent tinkering with the things. Some of them will undoubtedly spot an interesting quirk in beahvior or error with the device, and that way progress lies.
Progress is certainly what's needed. Quantum computers can, theoretically, be so much faster because they take advantage of a quirk in quantum mechanics. While classical computers use bits that contain exist as a 0 or 1, quantum computers use "qubits" that can exist in 0, 1 or a superposition of the two.
That allows a single bit to potentially hold two values at once, or for two bits to hold four values at once. Keep scaling those numbers, and you quickly end up with a device that can process data exponentially faster than today's computers.
But so far it's proven hard to build quantum devices with more than a handful of qubits. There is, of course, the D-Wave quantum computer, which claims to handle hundreds of qubits — but the jury is still very much out on whether or not the computer actually takes advantage of true quantum effects.
IBM will be hoping that the insights it can glean from opening up its hardware will accelerate the process. Hopefully it does.