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Nanoelectronics July 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

IBM Making and Enabling Advances in Quantum Computing

Why is this topic significant?

Scientists are making rapid advances in the field of quantum computing. By creating a platform for global researchers to access its technology, IBM is likely to accelerate this progress further.

Description

"Quantum-Computing Developments" in the March 2016 Viewpoints describes how the US government awarded IBM a major multiyear grant in order to further the electronics player's research into quantum computing. In May 2016, IBM announced plans to provide public access to its quantum processors via a cloud-enabled platform: IBM Quantum Experience. This platform will enable users to prepare experiments and run them on IBM's quantum computer—housed in a cryogenic facility at its Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York. Currently, IBM's processor has just five qubits—the quantum analogue of classical bits in conventional computers. However, the company expects this number to expand to approximately 50 to 100 within the next decade.

The key barrier to building more complex quantum computers is fabrication of high-quality qubits and devising of a means to package them in a scalable fashion. IBM uses superconducting qubits on silicon chips that it produces with standard silicon-fabrication techniques and with a design that it claims is the "only physical architecture that can scale to larger dimensions." As a result of this scalability, IBM believes that its research in this field represents the leading approach to building a "universal" quantum computer containing over 100,000 qubits.

Implications

The most important aspect of this development is the increased access that researchers in this field will have to IBM's world-leading quantum-computing infrastructure. Despite the fact that the initiative is open to the public, only users with a relevant technical background are likely to access the scheme. This access is likely to accelerate progress in quantum computing, enabling the scientific community to develop novel and innovative applications for this technology. The program also goes some way to tackling the very real issue of IBM's creating a technology that only a limited set of scientists know how to use. By opening up the platform to all researchers, IBM is creating a community and building networks that can develop this technology and, in turn, ensure a smoother path to any potential commercialization that may result. Conversely, this move also gives IBM access to the best minds in the field.

A lack of clarity surrounds intellectual-property issues. However, at the very least, IBM is likely to see some indirect benefits from providing free access to its quantum-computing platform.

Impacts/Disruptions

Quantum computing is rapidly becoming a realistic prospect for a variety of applications. A quantum processor with 50 to 100 qubits would likely outperform the top-performing supercomputer in existence today. IBM's claim that such a processor is potentially only a decade away demonstrates the enormous potential and relative immediacy of this technology. Key initial applications for quantum computing could include encryption, drug design, the analysis of big data, and machine learning. Quantum-computing-enabled advances could therefore have a significant impact on security, health care, and the advent of artificially intelligent systems.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Computing, security, pharmaceuticals, big data, artificial intelligence

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Quantum-Dot Image Sensors

Why is this topic significant?

Image sensors are ubiquitous in many types of electronic device. The introduction of a novel device—based on quantum dots—could yield significant advantages over the silicon-based technology that currently dominates the market.

Description

In 2015, InVisage announced a significant development in the commercialization of the world's first smartphone image sensor that uses quantum dots as the light-sensitive material (silicon currently finds use in all standard image sensors). InVisage made the 13-megapixel sensor—which has the potential to enable thinner and lighter products—available to smartphone companies in small quantities for developmental purposes. The company claims that its Quantum13 image sensor will find use in conventional phone cameras in the second quarter of 2016.

More recently, in February 2016, InVisage announced the development of quantum-dot-based image sensors to register infrared radiation rather than visible light. According to InVisage, the SparkP2 2-megapixel sensor should also see use in commercial products in 2016. In May 2016, InVisage went on to announce the incorporation of this sensor into a module specifically for authentication systems such as Microsoft Windows Hello. The Spark Authentication Module (SAM) enables tablets, laptops, or smartphones to authenticate the identity of a user at distances greater than 1 meter. The module consumes 50 times less power than alternative approaches consume.

Implications

InVisage is clearly demonstrating that quantum dots could find use in a range of commercial-electronics applications beyond improving the color gamut of liquid-crystal displays. By investing in the development of lightweight and thin-form-factor quantum-dot image sensors, InVisage is placing itself in pole position to profit from this potentially lucrative technology (the CMOS image-sensor market was worth over $10 billion in 2015).

Intellectual property is crucially important in this field, with several large legal disputes occurring about quantum-dot patents (most recently between Nanosys and QD Vision in April 2016). However, InVisage possesses a range of patents covering its technology and is looking to pursue applications that are distinct from applications of the other major quantum-dot players. Recent reports suggest that although InVisage is willing to sell components to rival image-sensor companies in order to aid its penetration of the market, it has no plans to license out its technology.

Impacts/Disruptions

InVisage's infrared sensors have a wide range of potential "computer-vision" applications. Retina-scan authentication—enabled by the SAM—represents the most commercially mature application. However, the technology could also enable driverless automobiles and drones to navigate more accurately, find use in home-security systems, and improve a variety of user interfaces. For example, gesture recognition could potentially revolutionize how users interact with devices in both real and virtual worlds.

InVisage is aiming to penetrate a market that is dominated by several large players (Sony, Samsung, and Omnivision account for over 60% of the image-sensor market alone). Forming a direct partnership with one of these firms perhaps represents InVisage's best opportunity to see its technology begin to compete with standard CMOS image sensors in the next five years.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Sensor, automotive, portable electronic device, security, user interface, defense

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: