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Conglomerates set busy schedule for Japan’s new quantum computer

A group of Japanese companies will use an IBM quantum computer for research and development. A similar machine is also operating in Germany. Photo: IBM

New generation batteries for electric vehicles will be among the challenges thrown at the cutting-edge electronic brain; researchers in Germany also began work two weeks ago with a quantum computer built by IBM


(AF) Several of  Japan’s largest companies will soon begin using the massive power of a quantum computer to search for new industrial materials and applications.

About a dozen companies, including Toyota Motor, plan to jointly use the IBM quantum computer installed in April at the Kawasaki Business Incubation Center in Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

The computer is scheduled to be up and running by the end of July, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

Japan is only the third location for a quantum computer, after the US and Germany. The system will be used by Japan’s Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium, led by the University of Tokyo.

The consortium, with members that also include Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony, was formed last year with the goal of accelerating research and development. The companies shared the cost of the computer and its installation.

‘Cutting edge’

“It’s overwhelmingly advantageous to be able to get a lot of time on a cutting-edge computer,” Hiroaki Aihara, the consortium’s project leader and vice president of the University of Tokyo, told the Mainichi newspaper.

“We want to develop quantum computer apps through industry-academia cooperation and accelerate the technology’s use,” he added.

Typically, it costs billions of yen, or tens of millions of dollars, to install a quantum computer. Members of the consortium will share the cost of installation.

One potential application is in the chemical industry, which hopes to create innovative materials using simulations.

Mitsubishi Chemical said it plans to use the IBM unit to work on lithium-air batteries, which have the potential to store several times more electricity than lithium-ion batteries currently used in smartphones and electric vehicles.

It also hoped to develop better light-emitting diodes and solar cells.

Germany has one too now

German companies are also likely to get in the benefits of quantum computing also. That’s because the European nation inaugurated its first quantum computer, built by US firm IBM, on June 15. Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the news as a milestone at a time of “intense competition” with foreign rivals in harnessing the revolutionary technology.

The cutting-edge “Q System One”, located in Ehningen near Stuttgart, was the first of its kind outside the United States and will be operated by Germany’s Fraunhofer research institute.

Speaking via video link at the virtual launch, Merkel described the supercomputer as a “technological wonder” that could play “a key role in our efforts for technological and digital sovereignty, and of course for economic growth”.

“We are already in the midst of an intense competition and Germany would like to have an important say,” said the veteran leader, who holds a degree in quantum chemistry.

Merkel said China and the United States were already investing heavily both in quantum research and its potential commercial applications.

Scientists believe that once the technology has matured, super-fast quantum computing will power innovation in a range of fields, from smarter encryption software and artificial intelligence to more efficient medical research and energy use.

Futuristic look

Quantum computers can process complex information at a mind-boggling speed and should eventually vastly outperform even the most powerful of today’s conventional computers.

The futuristic-looking 27-qubit computer installed in Germany has been running since February, but the launch event was postponed because of the Covid pandemic. Bearing no resemblance to a regular computer, the machine is housed in a nine-foot (2.7-metre) glass cube to shield the fragile qubits from noise and disturbances. The computer’s innards, with its wires and tubes, are encased in a shiny cylinder suspended from the cube’s ceiling.

The Fraunhofer institute has said it will team up with a network of German companies and other research organisations and use the computer to deepen their quantumknow-how and experiment with practical uses, supported by experts from IBM.

The project, funded by German taxpayers, will cost around 40 million euros ($48 million) over the next four years. The German government plans to invest some two billion euros in quantum technology research and projects by 2025.

The European Commission wants the European Union to develop its first quantum computer before the end of the decade.

With reporting by AFP.

Note: Further information was added to this story on June 30.



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George Russell

George Russell is a freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong who has lived in Asia since 1996. His work has been published in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, New York Post, Variety, Forbes and the South China Morning Post.


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