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Behind IBM’s quantum computing commercialisation play

What IBM’s first round of commercial quantum computing partnerships tells us about the company’s long-term strategy for the technology


On 14 December, IBM revealed the identities of no fewer than 12 of its first clients to sign up for early access to its 20 qubit quantum computer.

Among the first round of clients was Australia’s University of Melbourne, along with, JPMorgan Chase, Daimler AG, Samsung, JSR Corporation, Barclays, Hitachi Metals, Honda, Nagase, Keio University, Oak Ridge National Lab and Oxford University in the UK.

The 12 organisations, which comprise the first clients to tap into the IBM Q early-access commercial quantum computing systems will serve as founding members of the newly formed IBM Q Network.

According to the company, the IBM Q Network has been fashioned as a collaboration of the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions and national research labs working directly with IBM to explore potential practical quantum applications.

Specifically, the IBM Q Network will provide partner organisations with quantum expertise and resources, along with cloud-based access to the most advanced and scalable universal quantum computing systems and technology stack available, starting with the company’s 20 qubit IBM Q system.

IBM said it recently built and measured its first working 50 qubit prototype processor, and anticipates that access to this faster prototype will be offered to participants in the IBM Q Network as part of the next generation IBM Q system.

“IBM sees the next few years as the dawn of the commercial quantum era– a formative period when quantum computing technology and its early use cases develop rapidly,” IBM Research vice president of AI and IBM Q, Dario Gil, said.

“The IBM Q Network will serve as a vehicle to make quantum computing more accessible to businesses and organisations through access to the most advanced IBM Q systems and quantum ecosystem.

“The IBM Q Network will focus on discovering areas of quantum advantage by investigating practical applications of quantum computers with commercial, intellectual and societal benefit,” Gil said.

There is no doubt that IBM’s quantum ambitions are lofty, with the company suggesting its new network is aimed at helping to “foster a growing quantum computing ecosystem based on IBM’s open source quantum software and developer tools”.

Certainly, IBM’s partnership with the first 12 organisations to sign up for early access to its quantum computing systems is set to see some compelling use cases emerge. Samsung, for example, will work with IBM to explore a variety of use cases where quantum computing may impact the future of the semiconductor and electronics industry.

However, it remains to be seen how IBM’s first tentative steps at peddling its quantum technology in the broader market will translate into a full-blown commercial model for the technology, where partners and end users can tap into the technology for bona fide business purposes.

Technology Business Research analysts, Geoff Woollacott and Stephanie Long, suggest that the current tech market is at a transition point, from quantum science to quantum readiness, with the ability to gain quantum advantage or full commercial usefulness superior to what is available with classical computing, still at least three to seven years away.

Moreover, the analysts suggest IBM’s latest partnership announcement not only goes some way towards clarifying the company’s existing quantum capabilities, but also highlights just how little the company can do on its own to create a broader market for the technology.

“IBM cannot adequately address all aspects of developing the market drivers necessary for quantum advantage and actively recruit ecosystem participants to accelerate the time to readiness for quantum computing,” the analysts said in a report.

“The IBM Q Network sits at the heart of the company’s efforts to establish collaborative partnerships with the academic, scientific and large enterprise communities” they said.

According to Woollacott and Long, IBM’s announcement shows that the company recognises the need for open collaboration and IP sharing, and the growth of the collective knowledge base around how to leverage quantum computing for commercial benefit to accelerate the commercialisation of the technology.

IBM’s new quantum ecosystem play

As it stands, the Q Network consists of three participation classifications that are each distinct from one another and which contain still-evolving contractual arrangements around entity participation.

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“At the core of the arrangements are collaboration and the sharing of any knowledge gains across the IBM Q Network. In short, the Q Network calls for the collective sharing of IP knowledge for the benefit of the broader ecosystem,” the analysts said.

Woollacott and Long go on to suggest that the current structure of the program suggests that IBM expects quantum computing commecialisation to be an ecosystem play – no stranger to the IT industry, which has seen so many of the solutions it creates and uses merged into broader ecosystem stacks.

Regardless of this glimpses into IBM’s long-term play, the potential structures of a commercial quantum computing approach to the market still have some way to go before firming up into something recognisable to partners and other potential quantum computing users.

“For the moment, sharing and participation arrangements will remain highly negotiable interactions between IBM and the participating members,” the analysts said.

“Expect open contributions on the underlying mechanics and process best practices, while the industry-specific algorithms and insights will likely be more tightly held by the commercial members participating in the IBM Q Network,” they said.

One of the points the analysts stress in their report is that there is a need for the broader development and curation of quantum computing standards around the programming languages and application programming interface (API) connectors.

This is something Microsoft has been working on, with the software vendor releasing a free preview of its Quantum Development Kit earlier this month, giving Microsoft partners and end users the chance to familiarise themselves with its new Q# programming language.

Microsoft first announced its Quantum Development Kit at its Ignite conference in September, saying at the time that the kit would be designed for developers keen to learn how to program on quantum computers.

The idea behind quantum computing is by now fairly well established. Unlike classical computing, which uses digital bits as binary switches to carry out calculations, quantum computing makes use of the unusual properties of subatomic quantum bits – or qubits – to perform calculations.

Broadly, quantum computers represent a way to harness the ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at a time to solve problems that are too complex or time-consuming for existing computers.

Microsoft, Google, IBM and other technology companies are all developing quantum computers, using a range of approaches.