IBM has unveiled two new quantum computer processors, one of which is the most powerful of its kind.

The 50-qubit and 20-qubit processors announced Friday, Nov. 10, represent the highest numbers in quantum computing currently.

IBM Makes Leaps In Quantum Computing Innovation

Even more astounding is the fact that it has only been a little more than a year since IBM started offering quantum computing as a cloud service. It came out with a 5-qubit quantum computer in May last year and in just 18 months, IBM has evolved that to a 20-qubit system, ready for use by IBM Q clients by the end of the year.

The 50-qubit quantum computer, meanwhile, is categorized as a prototype for now, but it is no less indicative of the company's rapid path toward quantum computing supremacy.

"Our 20-qubit machine has double the coherence time, at an average of 90 µs, compared to previous generations of quantum processors with an average of 50 µs," said Dario Gil, vice president of AI and IBM Q. "It is also designed to scale; the 50-qubit prototype has similar performance."

Wrapping one's head around quantum computing is difficult. Conventional computers operate on interpreting ones and zeroes in their on or off states. Quantum computers can live in multiple states, which then opens the door for new programming possibilities. As a result, there are certain tasks - such as factoring numbers, modeling molecules, or running encryption-cracking algorithms - where quantum computers would be much faster than typical ones.

Quantum Computing Explained

IBM's new quantum computing systems, with their faster quantum bits, only tell a partial story, according to Gil. The more qubits there are, the more complex the interactions become, because qubits communicate using a process called entanglement. More qubits doesn't equal more power. A higher number actually means an increased error rate as they interact.

But IBM researchers, Gil said, were able to create a system with a high qubit number yet low error rates, which makes it highly useful for researchers.

"We have more qubits and less errors, which is combined to solve more problems," he said.

The 50-qubit system is a significant leap toward more practical and less error-stricken quantum computing systems.

"We are really proud of this, it's a big frickin' deal," Gil told MIT Technology Review.

Though the higher-qubit system currently remains a prototype, IBM plans to push its 20-qubit system so it can be rolled out to users before the end of the year, and improvements are scheduled well into 2018. In its previous 7-qubit system, a total of 60,000 users had run 1.7 million experiments, which produced 35 research papers.

But for all their impressive-sounding capabilities, quantum computers actually haven't been able to run software that conventional ones can't, so there's still a ton more work to do before they break that barrier. But IBM's progress takes us there further.

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