As usual, this week’s CES tech confab in Las Vegas is the occasion for a profusion of product announcements whose likes we won’t see until next year’s CES. There are huge honkin’ TVs, of course. And fancy PCs. And gizmos like a smart doorbell that notices when someone knocks on your door. And a bevy of unveilings involving tech giants such as Google, Samsung, and even legendary CES holdout Apple.
And then there’s IBM. The company is in Vegas to announce a new computer system of its own. But the IBM Q System One is the furthest thing possible from your next laptop. It’s the newest iteration of IBM Q, the company’s foray into quantum computing, the mind-bending technology that transcends computing architectures as we’ve known them since the middle of the 20th century.
As the “System” in Q System One indicates, the goal is to take something that began as a raw lab project and turn it into a full-fledged system that’s “stable, scalable, and more modular,” says IBM VP for Q strategy and ecosystem Bob Sutor. “And that we can use as this blueprint for how we will build more and more of them to make them available on the cloud.”
Unlike classical computing, quantum isn’t relentlessly binary; a quantum bit, or “qubit,” can be on and off at the same time and “entangled” with other qubits in complex relationships. That gives machines built with qubits the potential to someday solve computing problems at a clip far beyond that of any system that deals only in mundane ones and zeroes. The technology has a long way to go before it’s ready for full commercial deployment–and even then, it will be a tool for new kinds of industrial-strength number crunching rather than a rival for computers in their familiar form.
Still, IBM’s decision to make this announcement at the most consumery of tech conferences isn’t random. Along with giving CEO Ginni Rometty something to talk about during her CES keynote, it’s in line with past IBM efforts to introduce its research efforts to consumers early on, as it did when it turned its Watson AI into a superhuman Jeopardy contestant back in 2011.
The company began allowing outsiders to tinker with quantum computing as a service in 2016 and even released an iPhone game about the technology last year; Bob Wisnieff, IBM’s CTO for quantum computing, says that it doesn’t just want to address an audience of computing nerds. “We realized that . . . this is something that touches people at a very deep level, that people are very interested,” he explains. “So we’re using [CES] because this is something that is much broader than just people who are deeply into information technology.”
Building a system
For all the ways in which a quantum computer diverges from computing devices in their classical form–from a 1960s IBM mainframe to your smartphone–the 20-qubit Q System One is designed to address some requirements that are pretty conventional. For instance, it incorporates firmware that monitors the health of the system and wrangles software updates. Like any computing system, it’s engineered with temperature in mind–in this case, to maintain the cryogenic state required by qubits. It also hooks into the internet, using traditional computing technology as glue to provide access to its quantum computing resources.
Even though Q System One reflects some of the elements that quantum computing will need to enter the mainstream, Sutor emphasizes that it’s still a research project. “Everybody is at the experimental phase right now,” he says. “Everybody in the world, I would say. And part of it is simply that no one has quantum computers that are ultimately powerful enough to solve brand-new problems.”
IBM’s existing quantum computing efforts have been spearheaded out of its Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York. Along with introducing the Q System One, the company is announcing that it will open an IBM Q Quantum Computation Center at another corporate facility in Poughkeepsie, about 45 miles to the north. “Poughkeepsie is a really historic IBM site,” says Sutor. “It was started in 1941; there was an old canning company and we took it over to do some manufacturing. And then through the years it became the center of our design and manufacturing for the mainframes . . . And so to be bringing IBM quantum computers back to Poughkeepsie is a very nice looping back into our history.”
The innards of IBM’s Q quantum computers are improbable-looking multitiered metal assemblages that you can’t look at without thinking of a high-tech chandelier. Though the guts remain the same, the company decided to gussy up Q System One a bit. It worked with two sister London-based design studios, Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio, on the design and commissioned Italy’s Goppion–the company responsible for the protective glass for the Louvre’s Mona Lisa and the Tower of London’s Crown Jewels–to fashion a case. The result puts the Q System One innards within a sleek metal cryostat cylinder. The cylinder is itself suspended in a 9-foot airtight cube made of borosilicate glass–which, though functional, also serves as a showcase.
Given that Q System One is still very much an experiment rather than a mature commercial offering, you might wonder if IBM is getting ahead of itself by pouring resources into the design aspect. But Wisnieff says that this too connects the project to IBM’s legacy, which has included caring about design for decades.
“It’s hearkening back to the 1960s and Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s [vision] of ‘good design is good business,'” he says. “We want people, when they look at this, to know that we’re entering a new era within quantum computing.”
It’s the software
As with any computer, the Q System One is ultimately only as interesting as the tasks human beings can accomplish with the software it runs. Quantum is such an epoch-shifting departure from existing computer science that IBM formed the Q Network, an alliance that teams its scientists with those at big companies, startups, and research institutions to explore the technology’s applications in fields ranging from financial services to chemistry.
At CES, IBM is announcing new members of the Q Network: ExxonMobil, Europe’s CERN research lab, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Each brings a different perspective to quantum computing’s opportunities and challenges.
“To provide affordable, scalable, reliable energy requires every discipline of science and every discipline of engineering to integrate together to solve these problems,” says Vijay Swarup, VP of research and development at ExxonMobil. “And what underpins a lot of the solutions is computational capabilities.” The potential for quantum computing to accomplish tasks impossible with conventional computers–such as modelling molecules down to the last detail–could help the energy company with next-generation challenges such as waylaying and storing waste CO2 from power plants before it enters the atmosphere, a process known as carbon capture. “We are optimistic that quantum can provide us with insights that we’ve just not been able to garner with traditional computing,” says Swarup.
How soon could a machine such as a descendant of today’s Q System One deliver enough quantum-enabled computational muscle to enable such insights? Swarup cheerfully admits that he doesn’t know. But part of the purpose of ExxonMobil participating in the Q Network is developing enough understanding of the technology’s possibilities to have an informed opinion of where it’s going and when it’ll get there.
“It’s impossible to handicap if you’re not working on it,” he says.