In a traditional computer, like the one you're using to read this article, data is stored in the form of bits. A bit has two states, 0 and 1, and it can be in one and only one of these states at any given time.
A quantum computer is very different. A qubit, the quantum equivalent of a bit, also has two states, but it can be in a combination of those two states. This property enables certain computational problems to potentially be solved exponentially faster on a quantum computer than on a traditional computer.
Don't worry if this doesn't make sense to you. "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics," reads a quote widely attributed to physicist Richard Feynman.
It's likely that we're still many years away from meaningful commercialization of quantum computing, but some companies are beginning to get serious about the technology. International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM) recently announced that it had successfully built a prototype quantum computer with 50 qubits, and Alphabet's Google is working on its own quantum machines. Microsoft recently announced a new programming language, Q# (pronounced "Q sharp"), designed for writing quantum algorithms that can be run in a simulator on the company's Azure cloud platform.
It's far too early to tell which companies will be quantum computing leaders 10 years from now, or even if there will be a quantum computing market by then. But IBM seems to have taken an early lead, and it's planted the first seeds for commercializing the technology.
IBM announced last week the first clients of its early access commercial quantum computing system, IBM Q. Twelve organizations, including JPMorgan Chase, Samsung, Barclays, Daimler AG, and Oak Ridge National Lab, plan to experiment with IBM's quantum systems, attempting to solve real-world problems.
JPMorgan Chase will attempt to apply quantum computing to trading strategies, portfolio optimization, asset pricing, and risk management. Samsung will be looking at use cases in the semiconductor and electronics industry. Daimler will apply the technology to finding new materials through quantum chemistry and solving optimization problems related to manufacturing processes, fleet logistics, and self-driving cars.
These companies will have access to IBM's 20-qubit system, with the 50-qubit system expected to be available for use in the next-generation IBM Q system.
A very long road ahead
Quantum computing is a story likely to play out over decades. One reason it may take many years for meaningful commercialization is that quantum computing is prone to errors. Traditional computers use redundancy to solve this problem. Quantum computers, with qubits not in well-defined states, are different beasts entirely.
IBM is making progress on that front, but there's still plenty of work to do. From the press release announcing the 50-qubit computer: "Over the next year, IBM Q scientists will continue to work to improve its devices including the quality of qubits, circuit connectivity, and error rates of operations to increase the depth for running quantum algorithms. For example, within six months, the IBM team was able to extend the coherence times for the 20-qubit processor to be twice that of the publicly available 5 and 16 qubit systems on the IBM Q experience."
The coherence time is the time a qubit state survives. It needs to be longer than the time it takes to perform a calculation to be useful. "Improvements to error mitigation and to the quality of qubits are our focus for making quantum computing systems useful for practical applications in the near future," according to IBM.
For IBM, quantum computing is a long-term bet that won't pay off in a meaningful way anytime soon. But if the full potential of quantum computing is eventually realized, IBM will be at the center of the next computing revolution.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Timothy Green owns shares of IBM. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.