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Technology

Japan group to bring quantum computers to the workplace

IBM, University of Tokyo and partners to develop software for the technology

The consortium, including the University of Tokyo, IBM Japan and Toshiba, wants to focus on areas where Japanese companies can be competitive. (Photo courtesy of IBM Japan)

TOKYO -- Leading Japanese universities and corporations have joined hands with IBM to develop practical quantum computing applications in finance, materials development and the broader business scene.

"I believe that Japan will play an important role in implementing quantum computing technology to society ahead of rest of the world, and that industry-academia-government collaboration is necessary for this," University of Tokyo President Makoto Gonokami said at an online news conference Thursday that unveiled the Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium.

Commercializing quantum computers requires new algorithms and software built on a different set of expertise from conventional computers. Keio University, a leader in this field, is joining the effort.

Besides the two universities, Toshiba, Hitachi, Mizuho Financial Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, JSR, DIC, Toyota Motor, Mitsubishi Chemical and IBM Japan will participate.

Companies have high hopes for adopting quantum computing into their operations. Participants will work to advance research and develop new software, using a cutting-edge quantum computer IBM plans to bring to Japan in 2021. Software development requires less monetary investment than hardware.

Japan is also a strong player in basic physics and chemistry research, which could help the consortium quickly develop commercial uses for quantum technology.

Interest in quantum computing surged last year with Google's claim -- hotly disputed by IBM -- to have solved a problem 1.5 billion times faster with a quantum system than a classical computer would have taken. The technology could help in a variety of fields, such as vaccine development and financial forecasting.

While full-fledged commercialization is thought to lie two decades down the road, companies hope to start using quantum computing in certain settings sooner. JSR plans to use the technology to develop new materials, like those used in display panels, while Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings unit Mitsubishi Chemical is interested in accelerating the development of next-generation lithium-air batteries.

The new consortium will also work on hardware for quantum computing. But it faces an uphill battle against well-funded U.S. and Chinese giants like Google and Alibaba Group Holding. Some Japanese companies are instead focusing on more niche areas, like Fujitsu's quantum-inspired computing technology called the Digital Annealer.

Competition to develop quantum algorithms and software is only expected to grow. Tokyo-based startup QunaSys is partnering with 20-plus companies to use quantum computing to develop new materials, for example.

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