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IBM unveils first standalone quantum computer Powerful new system could eventually leave today’s machines in the dust

The IBM Q System One packs some of the world’s most advanced science into a 9ft glass cube Share on Twitter (opens new window)  Richard Waters in San Francisco  This is one computer you will not be able to buy after the Consumer Electronics Show. IBM has built the first standalone quantum computer, packing some of the world’s most advanced science into a 9ft glass cube.

But so far there is only one — and while IBM does not rule out one day selling such systems, its business plan calls for renting access to the hardware over the internet rather than shipping it to customers. Until now, quantum computers, which harness the power of quantum mechanics to handle calculations that could eventually leave today’s machines in the dust, have existed only in disassembled form in research labs. They are made up of a number of elements: reinforced chambers to hold the quantum bits, or qubits, that handle the computation; tanks of liquid helium and other cryogenic equipment to keep the qubits at a temperature close to absolute zero; and racks of electronics to control the action of the qubits and “read” their output, all tied together by hundreds of yards of cabling.

Packaging all of this into the first integrated, general-purpose quantum computer “is an iconic moment” for IBM given its history as a systems company, said Dario Gil, chief operating officer at IBM Research. IBM’s history has been built on designing and building some of the most advanced computing systems of their time, starting with the 700 series of mainframes in the 1950s and the System/360, which pushed computing into the commercial world in the 1960s and 1970s.

To pack the quantum system into its half-inch thick glass casing, IBM had to develop its own electronics to control the system. It also had to develop ways to perfect temperature control and prevent vibration to make sure it could perform as well as technology in the lab. Quantum computers work by putting their qubits into a temporary state called superposition, when they can represent both the “1” and the “0” of bits in a standard computer. The qubits are highly susceptible to interference, and lengthening the time they can maintain their quantum state — known as “coherence” — has become one of the main challenges. IBM said the qubits in its new system managed coherence time of 75 microseconds, which it claimed was the best for any general-purpose quantum machine.

Industrial design has also played a part. IBM has always designed its flagship machines for effect. Notable landmarks include the menacing black obelisk of Deep Blue, the first computer to defeat a reigning human chess champion. By contrast, the first integrated quantum system has an eerie emptiness, with most of its components housed hidden at the back of the cube. The qubits are suspended from the top in a highly polished steel cylinder, the first of four casings to protect them from interference. The vacant space inside the cube is for more than aesthetic effect. It is designed with maintenance in mind: the front of the box opens on specially designed cantilevered hinges so that technicians can climb inside to work on the equipment.

IBM customers pay to have their calculations handled on quantum computers running in the company’s own facilities. Asked if it would ever sell one of the new machines, Mr Gil said: “You could envision it, for sure,” though he added that IBM had no plans. The system, called IBM Q System One, was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where a model was on display. IBM develops quantum computing system