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Alibaba fires up a cloudy quantum computer

Five-qubit creation is behind the great firewall and outside it at the same time!

By Richard Chirgwin


Alibaba reckons the world needs another quantum computer in the cloud, so it's opened up access to an 11-qubit system.

The system landed almost exactly a year after IBM announced its five-qubit quantum offering. In November last year, Big Blue embiggened the system to 20 qubits.

So as well as being the second cloudy quantum computer on the market, Alibaba's offering is also the second-fastest, as the company correctly claimed in its announcement.

The Alibaba offering is a collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and is cooled to as low as 10 milli-Kelvin (-273° C).

Alibaba's announcement did not, however, detail the tools or APIs customers will use to interact with the system.

IBM has cloud access to quantum computer 400 times smaller than D-Wave system


Neither Alibaba or IBM are anywhere near the scale of quantum computing pioneer D-Wave, which claims to have built 2,000-qubit machines.

However, D-Wave's operation, “adibiatic quantum computing” (adibiatic refers to preventing any thermal interaction between the system and the outside world) is best understood as a subset of the full scope of quantum computing. It uses quantum annealing, a process in which the quantum processor is seeking a lowest-energy “ground state” that describes a solution to a given problem.

In that model, the quantum property called superposition means the processor is modelling many possible ground states simultaneously on its way to a solution.

A more generalised quantum computer uses superposition of qubit states to solve any problems, not just those suited to adibiatic algorithms. The interface between the classical world and the quantum is where Microsoft hopes to play a part with its quantum API and Q# language.

Whether IBM or Alibaba, today's quantum computers' main application is as experimental platforms to verify that quantum, rather than classical, processes are at work. ®

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