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World’s First Integrated Quantum Computing System

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

| AI + T |


In the demanding race to build a practical quantum computer, tech companies are keeping their moods up by cheering every breakthrough. One of the most vocal competitors is IBM, which recently revealed the IBM Q System One: a 20-qubit quantum computer that’s built for stability with a very flashy design.


IBM is hyping the Q System One as “the world’s first fully integrated universal quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use.” However, that’s a description that requires a lot of context. The Q System One may be designed for commercial use, but it’s not exactly ready for it. Not in the way you might think.


Quantum computers like the Q System One are still very much experimental devices. They can’t outperform classical computers at useful tasks (in fact, your laptop is probably more powerful when it comes to real-life computation) but instead are supposed to be research tools; letting us work out, qubit by qubit, how quantum devices might work at all.


“It’s more like a stepping stone than a practical quantum computer,” Winfried Hensinger, professor of quantum technologies at the UK’s University of Sussex, suggested. “Don’t think of this as a quantum computer that can solve all of the problems quantum computing is known for. Think of it as a prototype machine that allows you to test and further develop some of the programming that might be useful in the future.”


And even as an experimental device, it’s not like IBM is going to start selling the Q System One. The firm won’t say how much it costs to buy one of these machines or even how many it has made. Like IBM’s other quantum computers, it’s accessible only via the cloud, where companies and research institutes can buy time on the IBM Q Network. Consequently, IBM announced two new customers on the network: energy giant ExxonMobil, and European research lab CERN, the organization that built the Large Hadron Collider.



WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT THE Q SYSTEM ONE?


IBM says the main achievement is turning an experimental quantum machine into something with reliability (and looks) closer to that of a mainframe computer. Quantum computing is an extremely delicate business. Chips need to be kept at freezing temperatures and can be disturbed by the tiniest electrical fluctuations or physical vibrations. The Q System One, says IBM, minimizes these problems.


“This is something IBM brings to the market that no one else really does. We know how to do integrated systems,” expressed IBM’s VP of quantum research, Bob Sutor. “The electronics for a quantum computer are not something you go buy off the shelf. You need a temperature-controlled environment, you need to minimize the vibrations, anything that might disrupt the quantum calculations.”


Sutor declares that a practical advantage of engineering a machine like the Q System One is that it reduces research downtime. Resetting a quantum computer after an upset caused by a power surge or a disgruntled look from a technician is much, much quicker with a device like the Q System One. “What used to take days and weeks now takes hour or days,” said Sutor.


While these might sound like marginal gains, if we’re ever going to have quantum computers that do change the world in all the ways we dream of reliable research will absolutely be key.


Perhaps just as importantly, the Q System One looks the part. The machine was designed by Map Project Office, an industrial design consultancy that’s worked with companies like Graphcore, Honda and Sonos. The Q System One is contained in a nine-foot borosilicate glass cube, with its delicate internals sheathed by a shiny, rounded black case. It looks like a computer from the future.


For IBM this is not simply a side advantage, it’s part of the plan. The 107-year-old company may still rake in billions in revenue each quarter (mostly from legacy enterprise deals), but it’s facing what some analysts have called “irreversible structural decline.” It’s failed to come out ahead in the tech industry’s most recent growth areas, mobile and cloud computing, and it needs new revenue streams to carry it through its second century of existence. AI is one bet, quantum computing another.


Sutor doesn’t mention these problems, but he does note that the Q System One is supposed to inspire confidence, both in quantum computing and in IBM itself. “People, when they see quantum computing systems, their eyes just glow, and it’s because they understand that these things that were just rumored about, or that were just too futuristic, are now starting to be produced. They can look at these things and say, ‘Ah, IBM sees the path forward!’”


Machines like the Q System One are still useful on these standings, giving people a glimpse of the future.



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