IBM makes breakthrough in race to commercialize quantum computers

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Researchers at IBM have developed a new approach for simulating molecules on a quantum computer.

The breakthrough, outlined in a research paper published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature, uses a technique that could eventually allow quantum computers to solve difficult problems in chemistry and electro-magnetism that cannot be solved by even the most powerful supercomputers today.

In the experiments described in the paper, IBM researchers used a quantum computer to derive the lowest energy state of a molecule of beryllium hydride. Knowing the energy state of a molecule is a key to understanding chemical reactions.

In the case of beryllium hydride, a supercomputer can solve this problem, but the standard techniques for doing so cannot be used for large molecules because the number of variables exceeds the computational power of even these machines. The IBM researchers created a new algorithm specifically designed to take advantage of the capabilities of a quantum computer that has the potential to run similar calculations for much larger molecules, the company said.

The problem with existing quantum computers – including the one IBM used for this research — is that they produce errors and as the size of the molecule being analyzed grows, the calculation strays further and further from chemical accuracy. The inaccuracy in IBM’s experiments varied between 2 and 4 percent, Jerry Chow, the manager of experimental quantum computing for IBM, said in an interview.

Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University who was not part of the IBM research, said that the Nature paper is an important step. “The IBM team carried out an impressive series of experiments that holds the record as the largest molecule ever simulated on a quantum computer,” he said.