A new tie-in with IBM is helping N.C. State University get in on the ground floor of quantum computing by allowing professors and students access to a network of the new machines that IBM has set up at its research lab in New York.
NCSU is the first North American university to join the IBM Q Network, a collaboration that already included a trio of overseas universities, government agencies like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and an assortment of private-sector companies.
Chancellor Randy Woodson's staff intends to set up administrative offices for the new computing hub on Centennial Campus, and organize training sessions for would-be users of IBM's hardware. The official launch of the program is in early October, said Dennis Kekas, associate vice chancellor for partnerships and economic development.
Once it's up and running, users will be able to log in to the IBM service over the web, much as they would for any of the company's cloud-based computing services. But they'll be tapping in to "the very best machines we have," said Bob Sutor, the IBM vice president who's heading up the Q Network.
IBM is eager to have N.C. State on board because it's "very important we educate as many students as we can about aspects of quantum computing and that we have researchers from many different fields developing the new types of applications" it will require and enable, Sutor said.
He added that the field remains in its infancy. Its development "will play out over the next few years and decades," Sutor said. "This isn't a 'tomorrow' technology."
Quantum computing in fact is widely seen as the next frontier for computing, certainly on the hardware side.
Its name alludes to the desire of researchers to move beyond the digital paradigm that's dominated computing since its inception, where calculations are a matter of reducing information to packets of 1s and 0s and manipulating them with relatively simple mathematics.
The idea is to take advantage of quantum physics, the equations that describe the behavior of particles at the subatomic level, and create systems that can process data that exists in multiple states at once.
In practical terms, doing that means supercooling the circuitry to nearly eliminate its resistance to current flows. At IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, just north of New York City, that's meant building machinery that looks more like a physics experiment than what people these days might think of as a computer.
But IBM's on the cutting edge, with a working "20-qubit" machine and the prototype of a 50-qubit one. The word qubit is short for a quantum bit, and each one represents a doubling of processing power.
That gets directly at the potentially revolutionary nature of the technology, as it's theoretically possible for computing power to grow exponentially, in the literal, mathematical sense of that word.
But the technical hurdles are high, starting with the fact that even IBM's machines are capable only of holding a qubit steady for about 90 microseconds at a time. The equivalent sound wave is about as high-pitched as the normal person can hear.
User-wise, quantum computing lends itself to attacking the kind of problems that, as Sutor put it, are prone to "have explosive memory growth" when a program steps through its instructions, rather than ones that carve out and stick to a specific portion of machine memory.
"You do not take something that runs on a classical computer and run [it] on a quantum computer," as the calculations are very short and entire quantum routine can run in a second or two, he explained.
Though users at N.C. State would likely call up the IBM Q systems from ordinary laptops, they'll likely need software that incorporates particular types of programming languages and "new types of algorithms" that can branch from a main program to run only what it needs to on the quantum machine, he said.
IBM suspects the technology eventually will find applications in chemistry and drug development. At N.C. State, meanwhile, professors see potential uses in high-end mapping analysis, in physics research and in electrical engineering.
"There's a whole range of things that are in some sense out of reach today because of the complexity of the calculations," said Mladen Vouk, associate vice chancellor for research development. "So we are very, very excited about the whole thing because we think it's going to make a huge difference in terms of how we teach and how we actually solve problems in the future."
Sutor indicated that IBM likely isn't done adding universities to a roster of participants that, along with N.C. State, includes the University of Melbourne, the University of Oxford and Keio University, top institutions in Australia, Great Britain and Japan, respectively.
He added that the tie-in at State gives its students a tremendous, potentially career-making opportunity.
"If you are in school right now, really it's the perfect time to learn about what is quantum computing, how do you program them, how do you make them work," Sutor said. "I have been coding for 45 years; I have all that legacy of how classical computers do things. Whereas students today will really be born on quantum."