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Quantum Clouds Leap Ahead


D-Waves superconducting quantum computer chip.

D-Waves superconducting quantum computer chip aims to be the first commercially viable quantum computer offered as a new cloud service.

Credit: D-Wave Systems

D-Wave Systems Inc. has introduced its cloud-based Leap Quantum Application Environment. Developers can run code there on a live, real-time quantum computer.

The environment is more than just your standard software development kit (SDK) for creating applications, but instead offers a tiered set of learning tools, demonstrations, open-source examples, an Ocean code library with standardized Python and C++ application programmer interfaces (APIs), and Jupyter Notebooks that explain the code and allow interactive changes in parameters that instantly show how those changes affect results.

In addition, the application programmer does not need to use, understand, or even be aware of the underlying quantum computing hardware.

"You get a minute of quantum computer time for free when signing up for Leap, which is enough to run between 400 and 4,000 programs, since run-times are typically only a few milliseconds," said Murray Thom, director of software and cloud services at D-Wave. "Our comprehensive environment also includes demos that explain quantum computing applications, introduce our programming model, provide interactive learning materials including live code, equations, visualizations and narrative text to jump-start your quantum application development."

All D-Wave software is open source—even the applications developed there must be published on GitHub, which earns users more run-time—in an attempt by D-Wave to grow a community of developers that will come up with the first "killer" commercial quantum application before its competitors, primarily IBM (but also including efforts at Microsoft, Google, Rigetti, and Xanadu).

Of course, developers wanting to create proprietary applications can also use Leap, albeit at a cost of $2,000 per hour of quantum computer runtime.

"Leap is a quantum development environment that lowers the bar in creating real commercial applications for quantum computers," said Thom.

IBM offers free cloud-based access to a quantum computer, but that service is aimed at teaching users the concepts of quantum computing, in hopes of enlisting the engineering community's help at solving the outstanding quantum physics problems keeping IBM from developing commercial quantum applications today.

The IBM cloud service allows researchers to run simple problems to demonstrate quantum computing without learning quantum physics, and offers a graphical user interface for assembling quantum circuits. The service's most basic learning tool—an app called Hello Quantum that you download into your smartphone—teaches how the gates in quantum circuits work.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Michael Cusumano, the killer application for quantum computing would be uncrackable encryption algorithms, since quantum computing has been predicted to be able to crack most, if not all, current encryptions. However, D-Wave's quantum computer is not suited to that task, which explains the unveiling of Leap as an attempt to get the open source programming community to help in finding a different killer application.

When you sign up to use Leap, its Dashboard is overlaid with links to demonstrations, toolsets, code examples, Jupyter Notebooks, and community-building blogs. After a new user reviews these resources and downloads the Ocean software suite from GitHub, the overlay disappears. The Dashboard itself shows how many programs remain in your free minute (or paid hours), their typical run-time in milliseconds, the status of the quantum computer to which you are connected, and the history of the applications you have run so far.

D-Wave customers have developed more than 100 quantum applications, for purposes including airline scheduling, election modeling, quantum chemistry simulation, automotive design, preventative healthcare, and logistics. Developers using D-Wave quantum computing systems include Lockheed Martin, the University of Southern California, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national laboratories.

Baltimore, MD-based Ridgeback Network Defense, Inc., a startup aiming to redefine cybersecurity using deception technology software that diverts malicious intruders away from protected computer systems before they can gain access, is one of Leap's beta-testers, while simultaneously evaluating the cloud service of IBM's Q cloud-based quantum computing service.  According to Ridgeback chief technology officer Tom Phillips, IBM's Q "has a pretty nice interface, but honestly we just can't develop a business application on it now. IBM's engineering has not caught up with its quantum theory.

"There is a night and day difference between IBM and D-Wave as an application development platform. It's really really hard to program an IBM Q, whereas D-Wave has APIs that are easy to use, plus libraries of reusable code. Its latest tools use open source resources that make the quantum physics completely transparent to the programmer. You can use your own variables that match your existing application, form conventional graphs, then write your problem in graph theory or logic expressions in C++. Plus, you can use virtual networks, virtual abstractions, and constrain satisfaction without worrying about the underlying quantum physics. You can swap out the simulator or do an exact solver on the real hardware, which in terms of software development fits right into a normal application workflow."

The quantum computers under development by IBM, Microsoft, Google, Rigetti, and Xanadu are different from D-Wave's products because they all are based on circuit-level (also called gate-level) quantum computers, which will eventually enable them to run any quantum algorithm—called "universal" quantum computing.

D-Wave, on the other hand, uses a single quantum algorithm that can only run optimization (or constraint-satisfaction) applications. D-Wave's quantum annealing algorithm does not require error correction; all its competitors do, and are working to engineer a solution to the quantum error correction requirement.

Said Jerry Chow, IBM's manager of experimental quantum computing, "We will be in the research and development stage for the foreseeable future. We are providing free access to 5-qubit and 16-qubit quantum computers with the IBM Q Experience, paid access to 20-qubit quantum computers to our partners in the IBM Q Network, and are currently prototyping a new 50-qubit model."

In comparison, D-Wave's Leap platform offers users access to 2,000 quantum bits (qubits), and the company says its next-generation chip will feature 5,000 qubits.

According to Chow, as computing professionals become increasingly adept at using quantum computers, "Eventually they will start being able to apply the quantum advantage to particular applications, but at this point we need further quantum engineering efforts. Eventually, IBM will reach an inflection point at which quantum computer applications will take off, but to reach that point we need to solve some basic quantum physics problems, plus build a community of developers and an ecosystem of support to gain the necessary intellectual property to benefit all."

Said D-Wave's Thom, "Today our commercial-level solutions are much more sophisticated than IBM's, since we have a head-start in application development compared to IBM, which is still in the research stage." He added that since his company's solution does not require error correction, "which is crucial to IBM's solution, our chips are much less complicated.

"However, as IBM learns to scale their quantum computer, then it may turn out that each of our systems works best, albeit on different types of problems. One thing's for sure: both D-Wave's and IBM's solutions will be much faster than classical computers solving the same problems."

R. Colin Johnson is a Kyoto Prize Fellow who has worked as a technology journalist for two decades.


 

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