We know what IBM is, so, what’s quantum computing? According to Wikipedia, quantum computing is the use of quantum-mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation. A quantum computer is used to perform such computation, which can be implemented theoretically or physically. Quantum computing uses qubits, which are analogous to bits in a standard computer. Qubits can be in a 1 or 0 quantum state. But they can also be in a superposition of the 1 and 0 states. However, when qubits are measured the result is always either a 0 or a 1; the probabilities of the two outcomes depends on the quantum state they were in. The interesting thing is that a qubit can be set to zero and one simultaneously, for example, by encoding it in an ion that can spin down for zero, up for one, or both ways at once. Qubits enable the machine to process many inputs simultaneously instead of one at a time. And the point of having them is that they can solve difficult mathematical problems quickly – which means they could decrypt most current forms of computer cryptography! Quantum computing can also be used for Artificial Intelligence (AI), molecular modelling, financial modelling, weather forecasting, and particle physics.

So, what’s this got to do with IBM? Well, last month IBM launched its Quantum computer program in Africa, announcing a partnership with South Africa’s Wits University that will extend to 15 universities across nine countries. IBM Q is, according to IBM, the world’s most advanced quantum computing initiative, focused on propelling the science and pioneering commercial applications for quantum advantage. IBM said, “Q systems are designed to one day tackle problems…seen as too complex and exponential in nature for classical systems to handle”. It named future IBM Q applications in financial data, minimizing global financial risk, and optimizing logistics. It could also be used in financial sectors, mining, and natural resources management. IBM Q operates out of IBM’s Yorktown Heights research center in New York and will be accessed from African universities through the cloud.

IBM is making an early move to get Africa “quantum ready”. Immediate plans include training 200 Africans students in quantum coding in the next few months in South Africa, where about 40% of people aged 15 to 34 are unemployed. Students from various African countries are being considered for the first intake.

IBM suggests that Q could yield research and development advances in areas such as drug discovery based on Africa’s genetic diversity that could lead to new treatments for diseases like HIV or TB. This is one of the research areas IBM will focus on in its rollout of Q Africa to Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Wits University will manage access to Q from the 15 additional African education institutions, which include Addis Ababa University, the University of Nairobi and University of Lagos. The program is part of IBM Research Africa’s extended build-out on the continent, since launching a facility in Kenya in 2013 and expanding it to South Africa in 2016. In Africa, IBM Research has extended its capabilities to a number of partnerships, including blockchain-enabled collaborations with agtech startups Twiga and Hello Tractor.

IBM introduced a quantum-computing system geared for commercial and scientific use at the CES trade show in Las Vegas earlier this year. Known as IBM Q System One, it may one day be used to find new ways to model financial data or optimize fleet operations for deliveries, according to a statement from the company. IBM isn’t the only company racing to create the first working quantum computer, there’s also Google and Microsoft, as well as other less well-known organizations and universities.

Now – ie in July 2019 – there are no full-on quantum computers. They don’t exist – there are just lots of ideas and test beds for them. That makes evaluating them quite tricky!! However, people are trying. Recently, at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture in Phoenix, Margaret Martonosi, a computer scientist at Princeton University, and colleagues presented a head-to-head comparison of existing quantum computers from IBM, Rigetti Computing in Berkeley in California, and the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park. Note, they didn’t include Google’s or Microsoft’s machines. What they found was that the UMD machine, which uses trapped ions, ran a majority of 12 test algorithms more accurately than the others.

Every company that is working on quantum computing is using different metrics to show that theirs is the best. Google says it uses 72 qubits, IBM say 20 qubits, Rigetti Computing says 16. They are using supercomputing models. University of Maryland uses trapped ions and has 5 qubits. With all these differences, it’s necessary to use a standard set of algorithms to apply the same test to each machine. This standard set of algorithms for ordinary computers is called LINPACK. It tests how fast the machines solve problems with huge numbers of variables. For quantum computers, it was necessary to create a new set of benchmarking standard. We know that the researchers at Google are trying to show that their machine can solve an abstract problem that classical computers can’t. They are programming the quantum computer to repeatedly perform a random set of operations on the qubits. Because of quantum interference, the machine should produce certain strings of zeros and ones with greater probability than others, instead of producing all strings with equal probabilities. Conventional computers can’t predict this exact distribution of outcomes once the number of qubits gets too high. Google says that if they can measure that distribution for their 72-qubit machine, they have achieved something a conventional computer can’t.

IBM researchers are focusing more on the ‘quantumness’ of their hardware, which they measure in a metric called quantum volume. Quantum volume measures a quantum computer’s performance without comparing it to a conventional machine. It involves testing a quantum computer using random calculations like those Google is using. Using a machine with 20 superconducting qubits, the IBM team has reached a quantum volume of 16 and aims to double it every year.

The team at Rigetti Computing aims to show that their machine can perform some useful task more accurately, faster, or more cheaply than classical computers, thereby realizing a quantum advantage. And the people at a company called IonQ are using head-to-head comparisons of benchmark algorithms.

It’s clearly very early days for quantum computing, but with IBM tapping into the resources of African universities, I’m sure we will see great strides in the area over the next few years.

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