IBM Makes A Big Leap Forward in Quantum Computing

We’re continuing our series on quantum computing with some big news: IBM has just successfully simulated the molecular structure of a complex molecular compound. While it might sound a bit obscure or niche, this is a major step forward for quantum technology.

IBM used its quantum computer (called the IBM Q) to predict how the atoms and electrons within beryllium hydride (BeH2) would interact with each other. Using the computer’s seven qubit processor, the IBM Q quickly calculated what most standard supercomputers take days to complete. The Q managed to map out the entire BeH2 structure perfectly, a first for quantum computing and likely a signal of what’s to come in the quantum field.

Because complex molecular structures like BeH2 contain so many interacting electrons, simulating the structure has in the past overwhelmed digital supercomputers. Usually there are too many variables to consider, and the calculations slow down as the problem becomes exponentially more complicated. Still, the scale of a complex but still relatively simple molecule like BeH2 gave the IBM Q a chance to show off its potential.

IBM’s team touts this small but significant victory as a step toward the future. Mapping out molecular structures at quantum speeds could be a watershed moment for a number of chemical industries. Scientists working under new assumptions about molecular structures and chemical reactions could make gains in the pharmaceutical, energy, and medical fields. There’s really no telling where small victories like this could lead. Mapping out the BeH2 molecule is really just a case study in what quantum computing is, in general, capable of. The fact remains that ramping up processing power and reducing the time needed for complex calculations could conceivably benefit any industry or emerging technology.

Looking forward, IBM (along with all the other major players in quantum computing) wants to create computers and quantum chips capable of harnessing more and more qubits. Experts predict that once a quantum computer can reliably surpass the 50-qubit mark, quantum processing power will beat any and all standard supercomputers.

As with all quantum experiments, issues also remain with stability. Qubits are notoriously fragile, and maintaining their quantum states requires both supercooling technology and precise physical environments. Quantum processors are also prone to errors, and IBM is focused on figuring out how to reduce error counts.

But IBM—and quantum tech in general—seem to have momentum. Startups are popping up looking to usurp the big guys or discover new processes and scramble for patents. Quantum technology in general sounds and looks futuristic. Quantum tech’s potential—if it can be harnessed well—is staggering. IBM’s new molecular mapping test is certainly one small but important step forward on the journey to accessible and practical quantum computing.