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IBM, Google Invest $150 Million In Quantum-Computing Push

Google’s Quantum AI laboratory in California / Frederic J. Brown. IBM and Google are giving $150 million for quantum-computing research at t...

Google’s Quantum AI laboratory in California / Frederic J. Brown.
IBM and Google are giving $150 million for quantum-computing research at the University of Chicago and the University of Tokyo as the U.S. and Japan try to stay ahead of a fast-rising China.

Quantum computers are a hot area of research because they could help solve problems that classical computers alone can’t, such as modeling how a drug molecule interacts with the body’s proteins or how batteries work at an atomic scale.

China has invested heavily in quantum computing, which also has possible military applications in cryptology and materials for weapons. U.S. researchers said Chinese laboratories have shown progress recently—often touted in state media—and are competitive in some areas. However, quantum-computing specialists say more basic study is needed before anyone can be sure the technology delivers real-world benefits.

President Biden examining a quantum computer with IBM CEO Arvind Krishna/Mandel Ngan.
The U.S.-Japan partnership is an example of how scientific research with implications for security and economic growth is increasingly split between China and a U.S.-led camp that includes allies such as Japan and Western European nations. “We have to count on our allies more for primary research,” said Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Until recently, he said, the U.S. was too lax in allowing Chinese students to work at American universities in advanced scientific fields. “We were funding them. We were not only funding them, we were training them, educating them to come back and compete against us,” he said.

The University of Tokyo’s executive vice president, Hiroaki Aihara, said many Chinese quantum-computing advances were shrouded in secrecy. “They are a very formidable competitor,” he said.

Emanuel said the partnership was hatched when the University of Tokyo’s president came over for lunch last July and mentioned the university’s quantum-computing program. As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel had promoted the University of Chicago’s ambitions in the field, so he pitched a joint research program with funds from U.S. companies.

IBM said it would give $100 million to the two universities with the aim of building a quantum-centric supercomputer in a decade that contains 100,000 qubits, the quantum equivalent of bits in a conventional digital computer. The company showed off a 433-qubit processor last November.

Unlike digital bits that are either zero or one, qubits store information in a quantum state that is a mix of zero and one. Quantum computers draw on the often-counterintuitive principles of quantum mechanics, such as the notion that an object’s position may be defined only after someone looks at it.

In an interview, IBM Chief Executive Arvind Krishna said quantum computers could model problems that are unsolvable on today’s classical computers. If you can work on climate change and you can come up with alternate ways to sequester carbon, suddenly all the negativism on fossil fuels goes away,” Krishna said.

Or, he said, the new computers might be able to simulate at an atomic level what happens inside an electric-vehicle battery. “You could do something in an evening that would have taken six months in a lab,” he said.

The technology is still in the early stages. Charina Chou, the chief operating officer at Google Quantum AI, said Google estimated that ultimately a useful quantum computer would need a million qubits, up from something on the order of hundreds today.

She said it would need to make an error only about one in every million steps instead of one in 100—a rate that itself is the result of breakthroughs in error correction Alphabet’s Google recently reported in the journal Nature.

“We have four orders of magnitude to go on the quantity, we have four orders of magnitude to go roughly on the quality, so it’s going to be a hard problem,” Chou said. Google is contributing $50 million to the two universities in what Chou said was the first time the Silicon Valley company was sharing its quantum computer with university scientists as part of a long-term research partnership. 

A signing ceremony is set for this weekend in Hiroshima, Japan, where President Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations are holding their annual summit.

Participants said the partnership aimed to educate a generation of quantum specialists, not only physicists to design the computers but also scientists in adjacent fields who can use them to solve problems. “There’s going to be a real need for people who understand the technology behind this and can help to implement it,” said University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos.