Meet IBM's bleeding edge of quantum computing

With the Q System One, the tech titan's grand promise of super-powerful computing takes a big step forward.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
5 min read

The Q System One model at the CES 2019 tech show.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The IBM Q System One model doesn't look like a computer. It looks like a conceptual art series of plates being held together with fishing lines suspended from a ceiling. The whole contraption is encased in half-inch-thick glass created by Milan-based Goppion, which made the protective displays for the Mona Lisa and the Crown Jewels.

Bob Sutor, an IBM veteran who leads the Q System One team, directed me to look at the bottom of this quantum computer -- an experimental machine with potentially massive computing power -- where there was a tiny silver rectangle in the middle of a tangle of golden wires. That's the home of the machine's quantum bits, or qubits, which are tiny, fragile particles that make the whole system work.

I asked him how much such a computer costs. He declined to say, adding: "It's not lunch."

Watch this: How quantum computing will help us build human-level AI

We were standing in the middle of the Las Vegas Convention Center during the CES tech show earlier this month. A jostling crowd around us angled to snag pictures of the model. IBM was at the show to publicly present this replica of the Q System One, its first quantum computer that fits into one neat package. Past designs were more like "backroom experiments," Sutor said, with jumbles of components strewn about a room.

The real Q System One was completed in November and is in IBM's Yorktown Heights, New York, offices. The machine represents a big step toward quantum computing becoming a commercial reality, after IBM has toiled for decades with the computing concept.

Creating a fully functional system makes quantum computers more reliable and easier to upgrade. Beyond those practical uses, these computers have the potential to create more effective antibiotics, help scientists better understand chemistry and nature and improve power grids. The machines could do that by providing businesses and scientists the ability to crunch extremely complex calculations that can't be digested by classical computers.

But beyond that hype, there's years more work to do to prove quantum computers are up to the task. Also, it's possible a different type of computer will lead to the next breakthroughs, instead of quantum designs.

"That's a big step, but it's one step in a journey that's 1,000 miles long." Brian Hopkins, a Forrester analyst focused on quantum computers, said of the new Q System One.

Super cold computing

In a classical computer, data is crunched by processing bits, designated as either 0 or 1. In quantum computing, qubits are used instead. These qubits have more complex properties that allow them to become combinations of 0 and 1 at the same time and also to interact with each other.


Bob Sutor standing by the quantum computer model.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With each additional qubit that's added, the amount of information a quantum computer can hold doubles. That capability may help a quantum computer become a far more powerful way to process certain kinds of problems that classical computers can't handle. Using these qubits could help scientists unlock ways of developing new medicines at the molecular level or creating stronger security codes or processing the mountains of data being created at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

The Q System One currently uses 20 qubits. "By the time you get up to around 280 [qubits], that number -- two to the 280th power -- is approximately the number of atoms in the observable universe," Sutor said, offering a hint at just how powerful these computers may someday become. 

Seeing the potential of these computers, startups such as Rigetti and D-Wave, and the research arms of Microsoft, Intel and Google are developing quantum computing , too. IBM has also partnered with ExxonMobil, Daimler, Samsung, Barclays and major corporations to kick the tires on what's possible with its quantum computers.

But using quantum computers is an excruciatingly delicate task. The Q System One's thick glass housing is used to cut down on vibrations and radiation, and helps keep the computer at near absolute zero. Inside the real computer in New York, quick blasts of super-cold air are used to keep the qubits inside at 10 millikelvins, colder than outer space.

"So inside a quantum computer is one of the coldest places on Earth," said Sutor, 60, whose 6-foot-4 frame, graying beard, deep voice and cheery disposition give him the air of an IBM Santa Claus.

That extreme cold and thick glass are needed to protect the qubits inside the machine, which are so fragile that a single photon of light or a rap of someone's knuckles could destroy their computation, Sutor said. Because these machines are so delicate, any future quantum computing will likely be done over the internet to allow IBM to carefully maintain the machines at its own facilities.

A long way to go

To be sure, the promise of quantum computers remains just that -- promise, and not yet reality.

"Quantum computers are not a magical solution for all problems that classical computers can't solve," Forrester's Hopkins said. "They are a potential solution for some of the problems that classical computers can't solve."

He added that the tech industry today is in the middle of discovering what quantum computers can do. Answering those questions will take a few more years, and achieving the ultimate promise of quantum computers could take a decade or two, Hopkins said.

But thanks to the new Q System One, researchers and the general public now have a notable milestone by which to judge the advance of quantum computing. That system will help cut down on upgrade times for these machines to hours or days, instead of days or weeks. It should also make it easier for IBM to build more of these machines to support a future quantum computing business.

"We set out to build something which was highly functional, but beautiful," Sutor said, "and would give us a way to look at what we were doing in the future."

Sutor wasn't under any misconceptions that his work is nearly finished. When I asked him what the next steps are for his project, he said: "What do we have to do? Everything."

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