The race is on for quantum supremacy—the point at which quantum computing will outperform even the best conventional computer.

Google, IBM and other companies want to break that barrier and tackle problems that no current supercomputer can handle. IBM took a step in this direction Wednesday when they announced the creation of a 17-qubit quantum computing processor. Computing time on this system will be sold to undisclosed companies through cloud access to tackle business problems, IBM Research Vice President of Science and Solutions Dario Gil told Motherboard.

“We are focused on the computational power of a quantum system to explore practical applications, and that depends on far more than simply the number of qubits,” he said, noting the system will be used to explore applications in chemistry, finance and logistics.

Quantum computer interior. Image: IBM Research/Flickr

Quantum computers leverage the bizarre science of quantum mechanics to solve certain complex problems faster than traditional computers. The chips inside contains quantum bits (qubits) that can exist in two states at once, allowing the system to exponentially increase its computing power with the addition of a single qubit.

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The 17-qubit processor will be used as part of IBM’s initiative, called IBM Q, to sell time on some of their quantum computers to businesses. The larger system is a follow-up to a five-qubit system IBM offered for researchers to run quantum computing simulations on a cloud-based system.

Today’s announcement is still a far cry from quantum supremacy. Currently, classical computers can run quantum computing simulations that exceed 17 qubits, said Thomas Vidick, Caltech assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences.

“A lot of groups are making very fast progress towards the 50 qubit regime, but it remains to be seen who will get the required qubit geometry, gate fidelities, and qubit coherence times required to reach the goal of quantum supremacy,” Lawrence Berkeley Lab computing science fellow Jarrod McClean said. “IBM is certainly a group to watch, but it’s far too early to rule out others such as the Google group and many academic groups.”

IBM aims to reach quantum supremacy—set at about 50 qubits—before Google, Microsoft, Intel or another tech company beats them. Google’s latest quantum development is the creation of a six-qubit chip with a tighter configuration that could scale up to larger systems, MIT Technology Review reported.

“The progress in our group is very rapid,” Google researcher John Martinis said in a talk at TechIgnite in March, “and we hope to be showing some really interesting … powerful, potentially useful results very soon.”

IBM Research scientist Jerry Chow conducts a quantum computing experiment. Image: IBM Research/Flickr

Google plans to create a 49-qubit processor by the end of this year.

“While technologies that currently run on classical computers, such as Watson, can help find patterns and insights buried in vast amounts of existing data, quantum computers will deliver solutions to important problems where patterns cannot be found because there isn’t enough data and the possibilities that you need to explore to get to the answer are too enormous to ever be processed by classical computers,” IBM said in a press release.

IBM’s announcement is also a separate field of quantum computing from D-Wave System’s massive 2,000-qubit system. D-Wave’s products are known as quantum annealers and are used for optimization, so they’re easier to scale up.

“Over the next few years, IBM plans to continue to push the technology aggressively and aims to significantly increase the Quantum Volume of future systems by improving all aspects of the processors, including incorporating 50 or more qubits,” Gil said.

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