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IBM has just unveiled this cool-looking quantum computer—but will hide it in the cloud

January 8, 2019

This gleaming monolith from a sci-fi blockbuster is actually the new IBM Q System One quantum computer that is designed to be reliable enough for businesses to use—in the cloud.

The news: At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, IBM took the wraps off the Q System One, which it claims is the world’s first integrated universal quantum computing system for commercial applications. Companies won’t be able to run out and buy the machines, though—they’re only accessible via IBM’s computing cloud.
 
All-in-one: Many quantum machines that use superconducting circuits, an approach favored by IBM, are a smorgasbord of wires connecting various electronic devices to a cryostatic cooling chamber that contains the quantum chip. The Q System One, on the other hand, is a single, tightly integrated system enclosed in an airtight case nine feet (2.7 meters) tall. 

Snowflake qubits: Quantum computers promise to one day exceed the performance of even the most advanced supercomputers. Their power comes from harnessing quantum bits, or qubits.
 
But qubits are particularly delicate. Even the tiniest vibrations or electrical fluctuations can collapse their extremely fragile quantum state. That’s a big drawback for running commercial applications, which demand reliable performance. To get around this issue, the Q System One is encased in half-inch-thick borosilicate glass to minimize any external disturbances. The system also uses a combination of metal supports to keep the cooling chamber, electronics, and casing separate.
 
Design hype: Plenty of other quantum computing companies, including the US’s Rigetti Computing and Canada’s D-Wave, already offer access to quantum machines via the cloud. Indeed, IBM itself kicked off this trend when it launched an online platform several years ago.
 
That’s triggered an intense marketing battle—which may explain why IBM’s machine looks the way it does (IBM wants everyone to know it was designed with input from a company that makes display cases to protect things like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris and the crown jewels in the Tower of London.) But the system’s going to sit in an IBM facility, so what it looks like is irrelevant. All companies really care about is performance. If the Q System One delivers a superior one, it could look like a giant sardine can and no one would care.          

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