IBM reveals an entire standalone quantum computer at CES

8 Jan 2019

Big Blue’s big new machine, Q System One. Image: IBM

At CES 2019 it was mostly TV and audio, but IBM decided to go fully quantum.

Forget giant screens, how about giant computers? Tech giant IBM has taken the wraps off what it claims to be the world’s first integrated quantum computing system for commercial use.

The giant computer, a replica of which was on display at CES in Las Vegas this week, looks like something from Alien, or an upside-down bin suspended from the ceiling inside a glass case.

‘This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science’

However, as IBM describes it, the machine sits inside a 9ft-wide case of half-inch thick borosilicate glass that forms a sealed, airtight enclosure. This houses a motor-driven system that rotates for easy maintenance. Vibration interference or ‘phase jitter’, which can interfere with the coherence of qubits, is minimised by a combination of steel frames and cryostat control electronics.

A quantum state

To build the actual machine, which sits at the IBM Quantum Computation Center in New York, IBM assembled a world-class team of industrial designers, architects and manufacturers to work alongside IBM Research scientists and systems engineers, designing what it calls IBM Q System One.

The line-up included UK industrial and interior design studios Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio, and Goppion, a Milan-based manufacturer of high-end museum display cases that protect some of the world’s most precious art, including the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

The giant 50-qubit quantum computer is designed to give repeatable and predictable high-quality qubits, and tackle problems that are too complex for today’s computers.

In quantum computing, a qubit – or a quantum bit – is a two-state mechanical system for displaying the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. Simply put, it calculates more possibilities and data than traditional computing systems. While a binary computing bit – characterised as pulses of zeros and ones – represents information in classic computing, a qubit is a measurement within the realm of quantum physics. The best way to think about a qubit is an electron suspended in a magnetic field that can either spin in alignment with the field or the opposite direction, yielding more data or possibilities. In quantum computing, a number of elemental particles – such as electrons, photons and even ions – can be used.

IBM is pitching the Q System One as the future beyond supercomputing, capable of handling applications such as modelling financial data or organising super-efficient logistics.

The tech giant said that it has provided access to the quantum computing capability since 2016 and has built up a user base of 100,000 users who have run more than 6.7m experiments and published 130 research papers. Developers have also downloaded the full-stack open source quantum software development kit Qiskit more than 140,000 times to build quantum computing software programs.

“The IBM Q System One is a major step forward in the commercialisation of quantum computing,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice-president of hybrid cloud and director of IBM Research.

“This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years