Before Quantum Computing Can Take Off, Terminology Must Be Defined

That’s the task of a new IEEE Standards Association working group

29 January 2018

What is a qubit? Depends on whom you ask.

The term, short for quantum bit, describes the basic unit of information in quantum computing.

Quantum computers are expected to be exponentially faster than today’s supercomputers, with the ability to process complex algorithms and massive amounts of data at high speeds. Each maker of the computers defines qubit differently. One might offer a 2,048-qubit model, while another offers a 50-qubit one—and it’s not clear which is the faster version, according to IEEE Senior Member William Hurley. He is the chair of the new IEEE Standards Association Quantum Computing Working Group. Its goal: set definitions for qubit and other terms used in the field. The working group is set to meet for the first time in February.

“While the emergent industry is poised for significant growth, it is currently fragmented and lacks a common communications framework,” Hurley says. “Having a standard set of terms will drive quantum computing forward.”


Quantum computers are expected to lead to more advanced artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies. IBM and Intel are among the companies manufacturing the computers. They currently cost a hefty US $15 million and are already used by a handful of organizations including Google, Lockheed Martin, and NASA.

Related: Artificial Intelligence’s Potential Will Be Realized by Quantum Computing

Although standards typically are developed before a technology hits the market, that hasn’t been the case with quantum computers, Hurley says.

It’s a problem for the field because investors are not sure what they are investing in. And customers don’t know what they’re buying.

Hurley also is concerned about the lack of competition among makers of quantum computers. He says that when investors and customers can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of the computers, they often rely on brand recognition. That gives companies such as IBM a tremendous competitive edge over startups.

Without standard terminology, it’s also difficult to get software and hardware engineers on the same page when designing and building the systems. And it’s challenging to train new engineers working in quantum computing if terms and concepts have multiple definitions.

Even at conferences on quantum computing, attendees struggle to explain the most basic concepts, let alone have the kind of deep conversations that would advance the field, Hurley says.


To join the working group, email Hurley. To be eligible, you must work for an employer that is an IEEE Standards Association corporate member and that will approve your participation. Hurley notes that developing standards requires a significant time commitment, so be prepared to dedicate yourself to the project.

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