If you need a refresher, quantum computing leverages quantum bits, known as qubits, to process potentially complex tasks. Unlike traditional bits, which can be set to “one” or “zero,” qubits can take on both values at once, or a proportional mixture of the two (scientists call this “superposition”). If you have two qubits, you can test four possible outcomes simultaneously (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1). Qubits are also aware of each other — a phenomenon known as “entanglement” — which helps the computer to arrive at an answer.
Quantum computing has the power, therefore, to trump traditional computers that test possible solutions one-by-one. It could revolutionize health care — as doctors search for effective medicine — artificial intelligence, cryptography, financial modeling and weather simulation. That’s what early researchers are hoping, anyway.
IBM is imagining a world where quantum computers sit neatly beside traditional PCs and server farms.
The IBM Q System One contains a fourth-generation 20-qubit machine. That might sound feeble — Google announced a 72-qubit machine last March — but it’s the quality, not quantity that matters, according to Sutor. IBM wanted to focus on error mitigation, and overall reliability, before increasing the system’s power. “We’ve been focusing on the architecture and the layout of the [quantum] chip,” he said. “We’ve been looking at all the factors that go into building a quantum chip that will allow us to extend to more and more qubits, and have them run efficiently with fewer errors.”
With the Q System One, IBM is imagining a world where quantum computers sit neatly beside traditional PCs and server farms. One day, a company might have many “cubes” stacked horizontally or vertically in a room. Or the necessary equipment to change and upgrade the innards of a single system.
Quantum computing is, for the most part, uncharted territory. And while the technology is still in its infancy, IBM is trying to show what a mature product can, or should, look like. The Q System One is experimental hardware — you can’t buy one in Walmart — but the company has tried to package it up like the original iMac; beautiful and self-contained, with an obvious window to peek inside and marvel at what the engineers have put together.
It’s hoped that creating something beautiful will maintain, and possibly increase, interest in the technology. It also gives people something real and tangible to admire. That’s important while quantum computing is stuck in a murky research period. Work is clearly being done — experiments are being run and academic papers are getting published — but many of the technology’s advantages are still theoretical. Quantum computers aren’t breaking financial encryption, for instance, or running complex weather simulations just yet. If you’re not keeping up with the latest research, it’s hard to know if quantum computing is real, or complete vaporware.
New hardware like the Q System One, however, is easy to appreciate. For one, it’s massive — a stark and refreshing contrast to smartphones and laptops, which are constantly getting smaller. The glass case and steel beams won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but they show a clear evolution and progression from what the company has built and exhibited before.