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Part of the cooling system used in IBM's 50-qubit quantum computer. Photo: IBM Research / Flick

IBM announced on Friday it has built a prototype 50 quantum bit (qubit) computer — the number some researchers think is needed to establish "quantum supremacy" over traditional computers. The company said its cloud computing platform will also be upgrading to a 20-qubit computer by the end of 2017.

Why it matters: Today's supercomputers are on processing par with quantum computers operating with less than 50 qubits. But quantum processors with more than 50 quantum bits are thought to be able to perform simulations and calculations that traditional computers cannot. IBM's previous version used 17 qubits.

How it works: Standard computers store information as a 0 or a 1. Quantum versions can represent it as 0, 1 or both at the same time, which gives them more processing power that could be useful for particular types of calculations.

Yes, but: It isn't ready for practical use. The quantum state lasts a mere 90 microseconds. And, the University of Maryland's Andrew Childs tells MIT Technology Review, it isn't just about the quantity of qubits but also quality. "Those qubits might be noisy, and there could be issues with how well connected they are."

Keep in mind: Quantum computers are well-suited for solving some problems — simulating chemical interactions at the subatomic level or optimizing supply chains, for example — but not necessarily everyday tasks.

Other players: Google, Intel, and a company called Rigetti are all working on quantum computing.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Manchin's massive means test

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is offering progressives a trade: He'll vote for their cherished social programs if they accept strict income caps for the recipients, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Manchin’s plan to use so-called means-testing for everything from paid family medical leave to elder and disabled care would drastically shrink the size and scope of the programs. It also would bring a key moderate vote to the progressive cause.

The China whisperer

Nick Burns. Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

President Biden's nominee for ambassador to China will face aggressive questioning Wednesday about the most important, and potentially perilous, bilateral relationship in the world.

Why it matters: While Nick Burns is an experienced diplomat with support on both sides of the aisle, lawmakers want to use his confirmation hearing to force the administration into some tough positions on China.

Jan. 6 committee recommends contempt charges against Bannon

Steve Bannon. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The House select committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riots unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday night recommending that former Trump aide Steve Bannon be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena.

Why it matters: The resolution sets up a House vote to refer Bannon for potential criminal prosecution, signaling that the committee will not tolerate attempts by former President Trump and his associates to stymie the investigation.