The scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute have announced they’ve taken delivery of the kind of package most of us dream of getting — provided you’ve got a steady supply of liquid nitrogen on hand, a degree in theoretical physics (as opposed to a theoretical degree in physics), and a working knowledge of whatever it is you need to know to program quantum computers in the first place. Specifically, the researchers took possession of an IBM Quantum System One.
This is the first time IBM has shipped a quantum system outside the United States, and it’s a major goalpost on the company’s long-term drive to commercialize quantum computing. A system in Japan is expected to come online in July.
“Quantum computing opens up new possibilities for industry and society,” says Hannah Venzl, the coordinator of Fraunhofer Competence Network Quantum Computing. “Drugs and vaccines could be developed more quickly, climate models improved, logistics and transport systems optimized, or new materials better simulated. To make it all happen, to actively shape the rapid development in quantum computing, we need to build up expertise in Europe.”
The Quantum System One is based on IBM’s 27-qubit Falcon processor. The Falcon replaced earlier systems, like IBM’s 5-qubit Canary, which debuted several years ago. The company already has more advanced systems than Falcon in deployment — a September 2020 blog post from IBM states that it had just released the 65-bit Hummingbird to Q Network members, with 8:1 readout multiplexing that allows the readout signals of eight qubits to be combined into a single signal. The 127-bit Quantum Eagle is expected to launch this year. IBM claims it will commercialize a 1,121 qubit system by 2023.
Up until now, IBM has only allowed customers to access systems like the Quantum System One via cloud computing services, so physically shipping these systems to other countries is a demonstration of how much confidence the company has in its ability to deploy the hardware. After all, if your quantum CPU breaks, you can’t exactly order a replacement from Newegg (or Mindfactory.de).
Getting the machine up and running during the pandemic was anything but easy. The Fraunhofer researchers and IBM’s quantum team had to work out a method for assembling the system remotely after in-person work became impossible. This involved the US team being up and going at 2 AM for several weeks running in order to train the German team. Despite these setbacks, the machine was ready to go by January 2021, which matches the original, pre-COVID development timeline.
According to IBM, seeding systems to institutions like Fraunhofer is vital to developing widespread quantum expertise. The company notes that very few businesses have a plan for adopting quantum technology. No one knows how to program quantum systems and plenty of people have no idea when or if quantum computing could even be useful. Big Blue apparently has over 150 organizations in its Quantum network, including “research labs, start-ups, universities and enterprises,” but it wants to grow the utility and capability for quantum computing more quickly. Seeding systems into specific institutions and companies is intended to help change this situation, by offering practical experience with a quantum computer to a larger group of people.
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