In any discussion about a high-performance technology, IBM continues to present itself as the sole center of gravity in the universe. IBM did make access to a 5-qubit mechanism available through its own public cloud in December 2015, in so doing invoking the phrase "first quantum processor on the cloud." Many took that to mean IBM had created both quantum processors and the quantum cloud. However, successful efforts by researchers at the US National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) to make quantum processing accessible through classical means — albeit with more rudimentary mechanisms — predate IBM's by over six years.
As a portal for the curious, IBM Quantum Services is rich and well-documented — as one would expect from the company that produced FORTRAN. QS offers two development environments for individuals building their first quantum circuits, and who aren't quite certain what those are. Quantum Composer (depicted above) lets users build circuits out of dragged-and-dropped parts, like placing fingers on a guitar fret to produce a chord. Quantum Lab is the next step up, offering a notebook-like environment for producing circuits with Qiskit, a programming library designed to accompany an existing high-level language — most often Python, which is a versatile, interpreted language.
While IBM is far from alone in having pioneered the QC space, the company can and should be credited for its very dogged determination to forge a path towards a viable commercial business model, somehow. With respect to services, IBM perceives two groups of customers, and is using its cloud effort to address them both simultaneously:
1. Industries that are willing to make deep investments in supplementing its existing data centers with not only quantum mechanical systems, but the cryogenic refrigeration and superconductive power systems necessary to maintain them. For this group, IBM QS serves as the company's showroom for certain models capable of interfacing with classical cloud portals.
2. Academics who naturally associate computing research with IBM, and who need a major brand name to help lift their projects out from the depths of obscurity.
With some nations still mired in their worst days of the pandemic, and others having just emerged from them, these two prospective customer groups are decidedly narrow. What's more, there's not a natural convergence point between the two.
Recently, researchers from corporations such as German automaker Daimler have collaborated with IBM in the establishment of what Daimler calls a "Quantum Initiative." According to a January 2020 white paper co-produced by the two [PDF], the 5-qubit IBM Q Valencia machine was used in the simulation of complex properties of electrolytic molecules used in lithium compound batteries.
But Q Valencia is being made available to a select, premium group of customers it calls Q Network. This makes Quantum Services not exactly the showroom for IBM's premium models, but rather more of a gathering point for academics outside the select Q Network community. For now, QS is something of a fluid entity, or what Werner Heisenberg might have called an uncertainty.
"What we have learned in the last five years, in a very practical sense," explained IBM Chief Quantum Exponent Dr. Bob Sutor, during the recent Inside Quantum Technology New York conference, "is that, while we are improving the quantum facilities themselves, increasing integration on the cloud of classical systems with the quantum systems, is going to be more and more important. . . In the direction we're going, there's going to be much closer integration of classical semiconductor computing capability, with the quantum systems. So there's the question of, how close to the quantum systems will we push which classical hardware? What will it do, and where will it live?"
IBM QUANTUM SERVICES AT A GLANCE
Intended market: Academics, researchers, and other interested parties who may be willing to participate in a proof-of-concept of Qiskit. Quantum circuits developed on IBM Quantum Services, which include both true and simulated QCs, may be shared among a broader community, and may be put to use in testing IBM's more premium Q Network systems.
Class of service: Experimental, from the most shallow toe-dips into the water, to deep-dive explorations.
Affordability: At the time of this writing, basic access to IBM's 23 full-time active quantum systems, and 5 simulators, is free. One does not have to be a IBM Cloud commercial customer or subscriber. However, one does have to have an IBMid account, which renders the account holder effectively an IBM Cloud user. Commercial services are available through the IBM Cloud, of course, and it's from there that the company expects to generate some revenue. But mostly, Quantum Services is a brand-building exercise for Q Network.