You may never own a quantum computer, but IBM will still let you use one

IBM Quantum Computing | Scientists working on a quantum computer
IBM scientists opening up a quantum computer IBM

You’ll probably never use quantum hardware yourself, but there’s a high chance you’ll benefit from research that couldn’t have been completed without it. The ones and zeros of conventional computers could never accomplish the kind of processing quantum computing is capable of.

The possibilities are limitless, yet there’s one important hurdle: If people don’t actually have access to quantum computers, the technology is little more than an intriguing science project. If computer scientists, academic researchers, and others don’t have access to the hardware, the field will never take its next step forward.

IBM’s answer to this problem is a cloud platform called IBM Q. Since the program launched in May 2016, it’s given users a way to utilize quantum computation without having direct access to a quantum computer.

The hardware itself might not be plentiful — but thanks to IBM Q, it’s ubiquitous.

Quantum Build

I met Bob Sutor, the vice president for IBM Q strategy and ecosystem on a crowded show floor at the IBM Think conference in April. We stood inches away from a cryostat, part of the complex architecture that makes quantum computation possible.

“The actual quantum device, the qubits, live in [a cryostat]. This is kept at very close to absolute zero. 0.015 kelvin. That’s a tiny bit above absolute zero, where nothing moves.”

“The actual quantum device, the qubits, live in here,” Sutor told me, pointing to a small compartment at the base of the structure. “This is kept at very close to absolute zero. 0.015 kelvin. That’s a tiny bit above absolute zero, where nothing moves.”

Refrigeration is a common factor among many of the quantum computing projects from the past decade. Low temperatures make it easy to maintain an environment where entanglement can take place. It’s one of the greatest challenges that scientists and engineers working in this field face: how can we make the surrounding area cold enough for the hardware to function as intended.

One of IBM's 20 qubit commercial quantum computers in the IBM Q Network. IBM

While the coldest section of the cryostat almost reaches absolute zero, the top of the structure is a relatively balmy four degrees kelvin. Each section gets progressively colder from top to bottom, a process that apparently takes a total of 36 hours. Sutor refers to it as a “glorified still,” referring to the way that helium is used to carry out a distillation process that flushes out heat.

Dummy Hardware

As Sutor talks to me about this complex hardware, he acknowledges that this particular example isn’t actually used to run calculations as part of the IBM Q platform.

He tells me that the qubits are fake – “why put one of our state of the art chips in something that just wanders around?” – and that the cryostat itself is a little more “robust” than the real McCoy, to ensure that it doesn’t fall to pieces during its press tour.

“Why put one of our state of the art chips in something that just wanders around?”

We’ve been covering quantum computing for Digital Trends for years, and it was still fascinating to see the hardware ‘in the flesh,’ even if it was actually just a replica. But the fact that IBM feels the need to lug around a physical representation of its quantum endeavors speaks volumes about the current status of this technology.

For years, quantum computing was little more than a ‘what-if?’ that fascinated computer scientists. Then it was an experiment. Now it occupies a strange no man’s land, offering direct utility for researchers even before the promise of a large-scale universal quantum computer has been fulfilled. That said, it’s still a relatively niche technology, even though IBM is doing its utmost to make it accessible.

The field of quantum computing is evolving at a remarkable rate, but there’s still a long way to go before it reaches its potential. Part of the challenge is the sheer scope of bringing these ideas to fruition.

A replica of IBM's quantum computing hardware at IBM Think. Brad Jones/Digital Trends

The concept itself required a significant amount of grounding in experimental physics just to get off the ground. That work needed to be upheld by feats of engineering – for instance, the coiled wires you see in the images illustrating this article were implemented to prevent the hardware from breaking itself into pieces as the temperatures drop and the metal contracts. Currently, there’s the daunting task of developing an ecosystem around the technology.

It took a company with the heft of IBM to turn something that could easily have ended up as a science project into technology that’s workable and practical. But now that a great deal of foundational work has already been completed, there’s a distinct focus on how the make this hardware accessible, alongside efforts to keep on making incremental improvements.

Working From Home

“A couple of years ago, this was a physics project,” said Jerry Chow, manager of IBM’s experimental quantum computing group, speaking to Digital Trends at the Think conference. “It was something that you needed to be in a laboratory to do. Putting it on the web was the first step.”

“A [few] of years ago, this was a physics project. It was something that you needed to be in a lab to do. Putting it on the web was the first step.

He notes that part of the intention with the remote access offered up via the IBM Q platform was to hide away some of the underlying physics. Users don’t necessarily need to know what the refrigeration process contributes — or how the superconducting processor operates. Not being able to fully comprehend the engineering of the quantum computer isn’t a barrier to entry.

This may seem obvious, given most of us use devices like smartphones and laptops on a daily basis without working knowledge of what’s under the hood. The difference is operational quantum hardware is incredibly rare by comparison.

A lack of finances or technical expertise might prevent brilliant researchers and standout students from using a quantum computer to do important work. But IBM Q ensures that even if these individuals have a path to the hardware they need.

We’re not talking about mere future potential, here. Chow tells me that 75,000 users have run over 2.5 million experiments on the IBM Q platform, with some 60 research papers having been published as a result. “There’s a paper from Japan on entangling 16 qubits, and how you would actually do that,” says Sutor. “That’s the first time anyone had actually done it on this type of machine.”

IBM scientists work on quantum computing hardware in the IBM Q Computation Center at the Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York and IBM Research - Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. IBM

When the idea of quantum computers first hit the mainstream, one of the most common questions people asked was when they could expect such a system to replace their PC. Experts replied that for the time being, it’s unclear whether this type of hardware would offer any tangible advantages over classical computers.

So, we shouldn’t expect to see a quantum computer in every home office – but now, it seems that in the short-term, we shouldn’t expect to see one in every computer science lab, either. In our inter-connected era, it follows that a cutting edge technology wouldn’t be rolled out en masse until all the kinks been ironed out.

The nature of the IBM Q platform means that lessons learned can be turned into improvements for everyone very quickly.

“The model for consumption of quantum in the near-term is this type of cloud access,” notes Chow. For the time being, it seems that accessing quantum hardware remotely is the most effective approach.

IBM is putting its hardware in the hands of people who can find practical uses right now, and that’s sure to shape the ongoing evolution of quantum computing.

At the same time, the nature of the IBM Q platform means that lessons learned can be turned into improvements that benefit the length and breadth of the user base very quickly.

What does IBM get out of making its hardware available to users who wouldn’t otherwise be able to work with a quantum computer? Well, all of the learning from using a quantum hardware would have been spread out across numerous labs. But thanks to IBM Q, now it’s all feeding back into its own project. Don’t expect progress to slow down any time soon.

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