Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: CES 2019: The Big Trends for Business

CES 2019: Did IBM just reveal first commercial quantum computer?

The Q System One has a modular design and parts designed to minimize interference. IBM's plan is to start scaling quantum computational center.


IBM's Q System One quantum computer


IBM has launched an integrated system for quantum computing designed for scientists and businesses called IBM Q System One.

The system will be unveiled at CES 2019 with a replica of Q System One. IBM added that it will open a commercial Q Quantum Computation Center in Poughkeepsie, New York this year. It is yet to be determined how many quantum systems will be housed in one center, said Bob Sutor, vice president of IBM Q Strategy & Ecosystems.

With IBM CEO Ginni Rometty delivering a keynote at CES, Big Blue is using the conference to highlight its research and development chops and the ability to commercialize new technologies. IBM has been among the forerunners in quantum computing. Quantum computing promises to advance a whole new paradigm beyond traditional computers. The problem with quantum computing is that it needs developers to create applications for qubits, a continuous cold environment and new hardware architectures.

Those challenges for quantum computing mean that its use will most likely be delivered via an as-a-service or cloud model. While quantum computing may be deployed in enterprise data centers at some point, the returns on investment would be tricky given the immaturity of the market. Sutor noted that "everything is cloud based so far" when it comes to quantum computing.

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Indeed, IBM launched its Q Experience in May 2016 and 100,000 people have accessed the quantum systems with more than 130 third party research papers being written. IBM's Q Network, a platform for business and science applications, has recently added Argonne National Laboratory, CERN, ExxonMobil, Fermilab and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sutor said the Q Network and Q Quantum Computational Center represents a more formal arrangement with IBM to commercialize quantum computing. For instance, companies like JP Morgan Chase and Daimler work directly with IBM scientists on problems and scaling algorithms.

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IBM is chasing quantum computing because it would be able to solve a bevy of advanced problems for multiple industries. Here's how quantum computing and classic computing differs via our recent primer on the subject.

Every classical electronic computer exploits the natural behavior of electrons to produce results in accordance with Boolean logic (for any two specific input states, one certain output state). Here, the basic unit of transaction is the binary digit ("bit"), whose state is either 0 or 1. In a conventional semiconductor, these two states are represented by low and high voltage levels within transistors.

In a quantum computer, the structure is radically different. Its basic unit of registering state is the qubit, which at one level also stores a 0 or 1 state (actually 0 and/or 1). Instead of transistors, a quantum computing obtains its qubits by bombarding atoms with electrical fields at perpendicular angles to one another, the result being to line up the ions but also keep them conveniently and equivalently separated. When these ions are separated by just enough space, their orbiting electrons become the home addresses, if you will, for qubits.

IBM's universal quantum computing system aims to make integration easier so they can apply to real business problems. The biggest issue IBM is trying to tackle is having a modular way to upgrade a quantum system. Custom components include:

  • Hardware designed to be stable enough to deliver predictable qubits.
  • Cryogenic engineering to keep quantum computing systems cold.
  • Electronics to control qubits at scale.
  • Firmware for quantum computing to handle upgrades and downtime.

It's still early in the development of quantum computing, but IBM's Q Quantum Computation Center will enable business and scientists to explore more practical applications. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Q System One represents an early template to scale quantum computing.


For IBM, Q System One represents a blueprint to scale deployments, said Sutor. "We had to create a new type of system that would contrast with what looks like a science experiment in the back room. We needed something that we could stand up for commercial use," he said. 


Building the IBM Q System One. 


As for the design, IBM's Q System One sits in a glass-enclosed, air-tight environment. IBM used a bevy of designers, architects and manufacturers to build the physical structure. The Q System One is designed to minimize interference such as ambient noise, vibration, temperature changes and electromagnetic waves.

Q System One has a nine-foot tall, nine-foot wide case of half-inch thick borosilicate glass. A motor driven rotation was engineered to simplify maintenance and upgrades.

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In addition, independent aluminum and steel frames are used to decouple cryostat, control electronics and casing. Why? Qubits can't have interference or they won't function.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was creating a system that could continually operate close to absolute zero without interference and be upgraded. For instance, to replace a qubit chip would take 36 hours to warm the room, swap out the processor and then another 36 hours to cool again. "If you only had one system 4 days is a long time," said Sutor. "Now with the new design we can shorten it to hours."

Will Q Systems wind up in your data center? Probably not. Sutor noted that customers would have IBM back upgrading systems too frequently since the technology is changing rapidly. "The technology is evolving so quickly, it may not make sense to have one on premises for a while," he said.

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