For the first time, IBM has released a quantum computer that can be used outside the research laboratory. The IBM Q System One has been commercialized and sits pretty in a nine-feet tall airtight, glass container.
Not sure about you, but whenever I hear the word quantum computing I just think of sci-fi movies where they put quantum in front of every word to make it sound more complicated. So, what is quantum computing? Firstly, computing relies on the ability to store and change information. Classically, the smallest ‘unit’ of a computer is a bit which is a binary state that is either zero or one. Using these bits, a computer can process and display information. In a quantum computer, however, these bits are now ‘quantum’. So, what does that mean? It means that the information stored is not in one state at a time but can be in both states simultaneously. As a result, when more than one quantum bit (qubit) act in a similar manner they can interfere with each other meaning that more than one process can occur at a given time. Therefore, quantum computers are much faster than classical computers since they can carry out multiple processes in one go. This is normally known as parallelism and allows the computer to carry out a million computations at a given time. A qubit is typically either a photon, atoms, ions or electrons and computer scientists control them with control devices. Some of these include ion or optical traps or superconducting circuits.
This all sounds great, right? But what are the drawbacks? One of the main problems faced when building a supercomputer is how fragile qubits are. Qubits have to be made in specific environments that need to be isolated from the outside world. If a quantum system is to interfere with the outside world it collapses back into a classical state and so works like a classical computer, which is not ideal.
The Q System One looks very sleek in its half-inch thick glass enclosure which was designed to limit the interaction between the quantum system and the outside world. IBM worked with numerous scientists and engineers and even a Milan-based manufacturer that designed display cases for the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. To help decrease any influences of the outside world on the quantum computer, it sits in a series of independent aluminum and steel framed which help eliminate vibrational interference. IBM’s Q System One has 20 qubits. But for it to achieve performance greater than classical computers the number of qubits needs to increase to at least 50 qubits, a milestone known as quantum supremacy. So, there is still a way to go before you can get access to quantum supreme computers.