IBM’s Q System One is the rock star quantum computing needs

IBM announced the world’s first commercially available quantum computer at CES 2019. Well. Kinda.

Called IBM Q System One, the computer is a glass box the size of a van with a sleek black cylinder hanging from the ceiling. Yet you won’t find it in your garage, or in the offices of your nearest Fortune 500 company. Those willing to pay to harness the power of the 20-qubit machine will access IBM Q System One over the cloud. The hardware will be housed at IBM’s Q Computation Center, set to open this year in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Reception has proven mixed. While the initial wave of news was positive, some have received the announcement with skepticism. Their points are valid. While IBM’s press release touts that Q System One “enables universal approximate superconducting quantum computers to operate beyond the confines of the research lab,” it will remain under IBM’s watchful eye. And IBM already offered cloud access to quantum computers at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York.

In effect, IBM Q System One is an expansion of an existing cloud service, not a new product. Yet that doesn’t lessen its impact.

Design matters

Quantum computing faces many massive scientific challenges. Q System One, with 20 qubits, isn’t no where near capable of beating classical computers even in tasks that will theoretically benefit from quantum computing. No universal quantum computer exists today, and no one knows when one will arrive.

IBM-Q-System-One
IBM

Yet, building a useful quantum computer will only be half the battle. The other half is learning how to use it. Quantum computing, once it arrives, will fundamentally change what computers can accomplish. Engineers will tackle the challenge of building a quantum computer that can operate in a normal environment, while programmers must learn to write software for hardware that compute in ways alien to binary computers.

Companies can’t rely on a “build it, and they will come” philosophy. That might suffice so long as quantum computing remains in the realm of research, but it won’t work as the quantum realm bumps up against the general public. Quantum will need a breakthrough device that wows everyone at a glance. IBM Q System One is such a device.

Lessons from history

Impact is what IBM Q System One was meant to deliver from the start. Robert Sutor, IBM’s Vice President of Q Strategy and Ecosystem, said as much, telling Digital Trends that “[we] have to step back and say, ‘What have we created so far?’ It’s amazing what we’ve created so far, but is it a system? Is it a well-integrated system? Are all the individual parts optimized and working together as best as possible?”

The answer, up until recently, was no. IBM’s quantum computers were not meant to be used outside of a lab and were built with no regard for aesthetic or ease of use. Q System One changes that, and in doing so, it could entirely change how the system – and quantum computers, in general — are perceived.

This isn’t a new strategy for IBM. As Sutor will quickly point out, the company took a similar approach when it built computer mainframes in the 1960s and 70s. “With all the focus now, people going back to mid-century modern, IBM has a long history of design. […],” he told Digital Trends. “We are fully coming back to that.” Other examples of this tactic include Deep Blue’s famous chess match and the ThinkPad, which redefined how consumers thought of portable computers.

Q System One might not be a major leap forward for the science of quantum computing, but it will give the field the standard bearer it needs. It’s already making quantum feel less intimidating for those of us who lack a Ph.D in quantum physics.

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