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Choose your adventure

Speed read
  • Quantum computing is becoming a reality as scientists learn more about the technology
  • IBM’s System One is the first integrated quantum system available for commercial use
  • Scientists know what the technology excels at, but real-world utility is still being studied

There are moments when technology reshapes the world. The invention of the cellphone is a shining example of a device that is altering the course of human events. However, people often have a hard time recognizing how revolutionary these products are when they first appear. 

The IBM Q System One is encased in an air-tight glass enclosure, which acts as a Faraday cage to block electromagnetic influences. It also comes with cooling components, as quantum computing only works when the temperature is lowered to near absolute zero. Courtesy IBM.

That’s where we’re at with quantum computing. Researchers know this technology will be enormously useful someday, but are still working on practical applications. It’s like those early days when the cellphone was a gigantic brick with a 30-minute battery life.  

Regardless, being in the early stages of this technology doesn’t dull Dr. Bob Wisnieff’s interest. As the CTO of quantum computing at IBM, Wisnieff oversaw the development of the world’s first integrated quantum computing system available for commercial use. Called IBM Q System One, this platform is different than any current supercomputer.

“I think quantum computing, at its most fundamental level, is very, very different from conventional machines that we know so well today,” says Wisnieff. “The rules of quantum mechanics give me tremendous capabilities in different ways than a conventional computer can.” 

System One is bringing a technology once hidden in research labs into the world at large, and it’s reigniting debate about quantum computing’s relevance.

What is quantum computing?

<strong>Testing 1-2-3.</strong> Technicians assemble the metal frame that supports and integrates different components of the IBM Q system such as the cryostat, quantum processor, and control electronics. Courtesy IBM Research.

Before jumping into practical uses, it’s important to understand what makes quantum computing different. We’ve discussed this topic before, but the big difference is data processing. Normal computers use binary bits, which can be either ones or zeroes. This on-off switch is a sort of computer language that tells your machine what to do.

Quantum computing, on the other hand, uses qubits. Unlike the bit, qubits can exist as combinations of zero and one. The qubit is therefore considered to be in a superposition, and this allows for much more efficient data processing that we can get on a normal computer.

Of course, there’s a lot of work to do. Scientists still have to grapple with the costs of intense cooling requirements, the lack of people currently able to program in this environment, and the overall journey to physically engineer a new kind of machine from scratch.

What can quantum do?

As Wisnieff is quick to point out, the creation of System One doesn’t mean we’ve completely figured out quantum computing just yet.

<strong>The world's first</strong> fully integrated universal quantum computing system is currently installed at the Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, enclosed in a half-inch thick borosilicate glass cube to prevent electromagnetic interference. Courtesy IBM Research.“I think that an awful lot of quantum computing is still fairly research-level quantum information theoretic issues,” says Wisnieff. “We're still learning how to get the best performance out of qubits and the best way to design things. We're fairly early in a lot of the learning curve. But we have advanced enough that we can build machines which work.”

That said, some smart individuals are already figuring out practical applications of this technology.

“A wonderful young woman came over to our demo at CES. She had won a trip there from a science contest in which she used the IBM Quantum Experience to do a machine learning demonstration on breast cancer data,” says Wisnieff. “She was using IBM Qiskit to do it. I was just floored.”

“This was a young woman in high school doing something absolutely amazing,” he continued. “It drove home the point that it's going to take people who are thinking differently about how to solve problems that will probably make the biggest advances in how we utilize quantum computing. People just trying some things out, like she did.”

It’s not just high schoolers that are excited about the machine learning applications of quantum computing. Researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy have already married these two technologies for image processing.

Outside of machine learning, Wisnieff believes that quantum computing holds a lot of value for those studying chemistry. In fact, IBM is teaming up with ExxonMobil to do just that. When working at a molecular level, classical physics give way to quantum mechanics.

Therefore, it makes sense to use a quantum computer to study such small objects. ExxonMobil hopes its work with IBM could eventually discover new materials that can help capture carbon at pollution sources such as power plants. 

There’s no roadmap

What’s next for quantum computing is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that scientists in the field are both excited and understanding of the limitations of the technology. A big hurdle will be ensuring that current machines are able to keep up with future advancements.

“System One is designed to be reliable and maintainable and—more importantly for us in many respects—upgradable,” says Wisnieff. “We know that over the next several years, quantum computers will continue to grow in capability. We want to be able to rapidly make those changes from one generation to the next.”

Much like that first generation of cellphones, scientists don’t have a crystal clear vision of what quantum computing will be used for. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about the potential. Wisnieff insists that organizations will need a sense of adventure when approaching this technology.

“Our partners understand it takes an investment to get ready for the future,” says Wisnieff. “There won't be some magic moment where quantum computing turns on and they instantly just hop on it and get going. It'll be another learning experience and they want to get started.”

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