Quantum Computing and IBM i
March 24, 2021 Alex Woodie
At first glance, IBM i servers and quantum computers appear to be worlds apart. But considering the rapid advance of quantum computing today and the midrange server’s place in a long line of advances in business computing, they may not be as far removed as one might think.
That’s the general conclusion one could draw from listening to Jack Woehr and Jesse Gorzinski discussing the topic of quantum computing during Woehr’s presentation, “From Hamilton to Hollerith: What’s the Use of Quantum Computers?” during last week’s IBM i Futures Conference, which was sponsored by COMMON.
In addition to writing IBM i code and working with open source software on the platform, Woehr, who previously was an editor at the now-defunct Dr. Dobb’s Journal, is also active in the quantum computing community. That activity, plus his 40 years of experience as a programmer, gives him a unique perspective into how the future lines of quantum computing and IBM i may intersect.
In Woehr’s view, quantum computing is something that younger developers should keep an eye on. The technology is not necessarily ready for mainstream adoption today, but it’s moving so quickly and showing such promise that ignoring it would be a mistake, he said.
“Like so many other things, it’s where the world is going, and if you want to stay competitive, you’re going to have to deal with this,” Woehr said. “And if you’re young, [quantum computing is] going to be there before you retire.”
Just as it took some time for organizations to accept that digital binary computers were the future and to give up their punch card systems back in the 1940s and 1950s, there will be a period of transition between today’s digital binary computers and the quantum computers of tomorrow, Woehr predicted.
“When digital binary computers first came in, they were attaching to punch card machines and saying, look what we can do? And they’d say, well, we can already do that. Why would you want to buy this expensive machine to do that?” Woehr said. “Well, we know the answer to that now. But it wasn’t as obvious from 1946 to 1953 as it is now.”
It’s hard to overstate the changes that modern computers have had on our lives. Many aspects of how we work and play have been digitized, and the digitization has increased during COVID-19. The most valuable companies in the world are technology companies (although some would call them data companies).
We have built all this technology on a platform of digital binary computing, which has Boolean algebra as its foundation. “Everything we’re doing today electronically is these three operators, and, or, and not, which is all that digital binary computers actually do,” Woehr said. “It’s had this tremendous effect on our world. But this was again not obvious to the people who would become very adept at operating the paper punch card machines.”
Quantum computing promises to fundamentally transform how we calculate, how we program, and how we develop applications. Instead of two bits and three basic operators, quantum computing brings a much more capable mathematical underpinning that will unlock new capabilities, Woehr said.
“Quantum computing is multi-dimensional compared to [digital binary computers] because it’s not based on Boolean algebra,” Woehr said. “It’s based on linear algebra — matrices multiplied [by] vectors, and the matrices and vectors are matrices and vectors of complex numbers.”
In digital binary computing, only amplitude factors in, giving us ones and zeros. “Well, quantum computing makes up amplitude and phase, for a start, and there’s a lot of other things that are different about them. They’re digital binary bits, but it’s more multi-dimensional than the way we compute now. And it’s likely to transform our world in ways that we cannot imagine.”
IBM, Google, and Microsoft arguably are the leaders in developing quantum computers today, but there are a lot of other companies from around the world making a play, with a variety of designs, some of which will go further than others. It’s hard to tell who the leaders will be in the near future because the field is so new and moving so quickly, Woehr said. “We’re in a caucus race with quantum computing,” he said, referencing the tumultuous footrace that took place in Alice in Wonderland.
In fact, there is a technical term for the raucous quantum din: Noisy Intermediate-Stage Quantum, or NISQ. “What that means is, it sort of works, but it’s hard to get the right answer from it. You have to really look at what it’s saying,” Woehr said.
One of the problems is that quantum computers are not very good at holding onto their state. Getting materials into the quantum state, and keeping them there, is currently a work in progress. That presents a problem when trying to get quantum computers to do useful work, such as solving an optimization problem (which is one class of applications that quantum computers excel at).
There is plenty of work to do in quantum computing, and that work is moving extremely fast. It’s unclear exactly when some of these problems are going to be solved, and when quantum computers will be practical for adoption by businesses. But there’s one thing that nobody doubts any more: whether quantum computing actually works.
But that wasn’t the case 11 years ago.
“There was some doubt in 2010 if this was real or not,” Woehr said. “Even in scientific circles there were doubts whether this was real. But it does work and we know it works now.”
The main benefit is a time advantage, he said. With its richer space of operators and states, quantum computers solve some problems significantly faster than traditional binary computers.
Optimization problems are one of the most promising areas for quantum computers, Woehr said. For example, some companies put a lot of time into calculating how much ore they’re likely to remove from a mine. They consider the placement of ore in the mine, along with variables like fuel and labor costs, the weather, and market prices.
“You have these huge, huge optimization problems that have many, many variable and they put them on supercomputers and run for weeks,” Woehr said. “Quantum computing happens to be very good at optimization.”
This is where the futures of quantum computing and IBM i may intersect. Today, developers are programming quantum computers using open source frameworks like Qiskit (pronounced “kiss-kit”), which is a project that IBM is behind. Woehr and Gorzinski are both active in the Qiskit community. During their chat, Woehr demonstrated how an optimization problem could be solved on the IBM Q computer using Grover’s Algorithm developed in Qiskit.
The problem they were solving00the optimal combination of ingredients to brew a batch of beer — could be extended to many industries and use cases. Grover’s can be used to solve the types of application problems that IBM i folks are familiar with, Woehr said.
“Suddenly everyone here who’s listening in will realize this could be any problem,” he said. “Grover’s will be any kind of problem — any kind of problem where we have multiple variables and some combination of their state is a valid solution and some combinations are not.”
Gorzinski agreed. “I think it comes back to this notion that there’s a tidal wave coming but there are real applied use case that are out there for a lot of industries, especially the industries that the IBM listeners today are probably part of,” he said. “It’s a competitive scenario in the future. People are going to want to adopt this technology, in my opinion.”
Quantum computing may not be mainstream in 10 or even 20 years. But the pace of advances in the field is quickening, Woehr says, and folks who are starting their computing careers today would be wise to keep an eye on how the field develops.
“The reason to look at it now is just to orient yourself,” he says. “It may be a while before you see it in your organization. But it’s coming. If you are in your 20s now it’s certainly going to be there before you’re my age, before you’re ready to retire.”