IBM unveils the world's first quantum computer that businesses can actually use to solve previously impossible problems

  • IBM unveiled the IBM Q System One on Tuesday, billed as the world's first gate model quantum computer that businesses will be able to buy and use.
  • Previously, quantum computers have been confined to research labs — Microsoft, Google, IBM, and lots of others have been racing to bring a viable quantum computer to market.
  • Now IBM will partner with commercial clients to give them access to this technology, which will allow businesses to model complicated data, such as investments and risk.
  • Quantum computers have the potential to perform seemingly impossible computing tasks, but they're still in their very early stages.
  • The computer itself is in a 9-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide glass cube that maintains the exact correct temperature and other conditions it needs to do its work — a kind of fragility that means that you can't just order one and have it delivered; customers will access it via the IBM Cloud.

For many years, quantum computers have been within only the confines of the research lab.

On Tuesday, though, IBM unveiled the IBM Q System One, billed as the first-ever gate model quantum computer designed for businesses to put to their own use — though the company is clear that this is only the first step toward a broader revolution.

Quantum computing is considered one of the most promising early-stage technologies out there today. That's because quantum computers can process exponentially more data and have the potential to completely transform entire industries. For example, they could streamline aerospace and military systems, calculate risk factors to make better investments, or, perhaps, find a cure for cancer and other diseases.

"Data will be the world's most valuable natural resource," IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where the IBM Q System One was unveiled.

Don't expect to install one in your office any time soon, though. While the computer is open to paying customers, developers will access its power from the comfort of their own homes or offices via the IBM Cloud.

IBM Q System One.
IBM

Average computers store data in binary, as either zeroes or ones — strings of ones and zeroes represent numbers or letters. However, quantum computers are much more powerful. That's because they store data using "qubits," which have a special property that allows zeroes and ones to exist simultaneously. This seemingly small thing gives quantum computers the ability to do exponentially more calculations at once, making them powerful enough for incredibly complicated tasks like drug discovery, intensive data analysis, and even creating unbreakable codes.

Enclosed in a 9-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide glass case that forms an air-tight environment, this sleek computer is IBM's first effort to bring quantum computing to businesses. The casing is important: Qubits lose their quantum-computing properties outside of very specific conditions. A quantum computer has to be kept well below freezing in an environment that is mostly free of vibration and electromagnetic radiation.

IBM's new system aims to address this challenge with an integrated quantum computer that solves all of that on behalf of its customers — hence the casing, which keeps everything in shipshape. However, this relative fragility is why you won't be installing an IBM Q System One in your own office — while it's definitely a major step forward, it's far away from being something you can order and have delivered.

"The IBM Q System One is a major step forward in the commercialization of quantum computing," Arvind Krishna, IBM's senior vice president of hybrid cloud and director of research, said in a statement. "This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science."

Read more: Here's why we should be really excited about quantum computers

Later this year, IBM will also open its first IBM Q Quantum Computation Center for commercial customers in Poughkeepsie, New York. At this lab, clients can use IBM's cloud-based quantum computing systems, as well as other high-performance computing systems.

IBM isn't the only company that's been working on quantum computing, as the technology is still far from ready for mass deployment.

Google is researching how to make quantum computers more stable and better able to find and fix errors, and it has also created and tested qubit processors as it pursues the technology. Microsoft is working on creating hybrid quantum computers, which combine the new technology with more conventional processors. Intel, too, has been working on quantum computing chips.

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