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In the back of a lab at the IBM Research Facility, less than an hour north of New York City, is a huge mass of stainless steel and aluminum that looks like a science fiction teleportation machine.
I also say this to Dario Gil, who leads a tour of Yorktown, New York, while I climb on the edge of the machine to snap a picture. A group of masked engineers look like proud parents. The director of IBM Research considers the comment for a moment. Gil's eyes sparkle and he answers with his Spanish accent: "Well, it's one!"
Gil is not joking: I stand on a quantum computer or at least on the outer "clamshell" of a computer that IBM builds. A form of quantum teleportation will take place inside through the strange quantum mechanical properties of "superposition" and "entanglement" that make quantum computers hum – even if that device won't zap the molecules of my own body to another planet.
Beam & # 39; me up, Scotty. Robert Hackett, Senior Writer at Fortune, is standing in the refrigerator case of the planned 1 million qubit quantum computer from IBM.
Quantum computers are the next evolution of today's fastest supercomputers. The machines are currently being developed by a number of technology giants such as Google, Intel and Honeywell, as well as startups such as Rigetti and IonQ. The machines are expected to solve hard-to-solve problems in science and business right now with applications involving chemical modeling, hedge fund portfolio strategy, drug discovery, and A.I. Progress.
The 8,000-pound monstrosity around me – a giant shotgun shell of a device suspended from a square metal frame – is now empty (aside from my body), but before the decade, IBM plans to install a quantum computer in it which contains 1 million so-called Qubits, the quantum computer equivalent of classic computer bits. The work-in-progress is the most ambitious and concrete plan in the world for a quantum computer that is currently under construction – at least it is publicly known.
An IBM engineer working on the refrigerator case the company plans to install a 1 million qubit quantum computer in by 2030. Image credit: Connie Zhou for IBM. An IBM engineer is working on the refrigerator case the company plans to install a 1 million qubit quantum computer in by 2030.
Many scientists say that quantum computers such as those built by IBM and Google need at least 1,000 qubits – and possibly up to a million qubits – before the devices can become really commercially useful. Since the machines are finicky and error prone, most of the qubits will be dedicated to correcting these problems.
Until now, most companies have struggled to make quantum processors with more than double digit qubits with fidelity. However, progress is rapid and progress is expected in the months ahead.
IBM is confident it is unveiling its complete quantum hardware roadmap for the next decade. A week before its plans were released on Tuesday, IBM Fortune gave a tour of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, including a peek at the machine ahead.
IBM CEO Arvind Krishna (left) and IBM Research Director Dario Gil are pictured with a 10 foot high and 6 foot wide "super refrigerator" nicknamed "Goldeneye". Image credit: Connie Zhou for IBM
Right now, quantum computers can't do much other than perform limited experiments – although that may change soon. The announcement by IBM comes almost a year after Google, a top rival, claimed to have achieved "quantum superiority," a technical demonstration of the superiority of a quantum computer over a classic computer in an arcane task. (IBM denies Google's findings, arguing that the supercomputer built by IBM at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Summit, could have done a faster result than the Google team believed.)
While Google has been relatively quiet since then, IBM is making more noise about its business plans. Big Blue wants to assert its claim to an emerging industry, bring partners together and prepare everyone for an eventuality that may come sooner than expected: the day when quantum computing will become just as useful for businesses as cloud computing, which is dominated by Amazon and Microsoft . is today. (IBM, which appointed a new CEO earlier this year, ranks a distant fifth in the cloud computing rankings.)
Despite IBM's grand plans, a competitor like Google could still zoom in further. Hartmut Neven, Head of Google Quantum A.I. The research group told MIT Technology Review earlier this year that it believes Google is ready to build a 1 million qubit quantum computer as well by 2030. (Google declined to comment on IBM's news.)
However, IBM goes a step further by opening its playbook and revealing its goals in detail. The company introduced a 65-qubit Kolibri processor earlier this year. Next year the company plans to release a quantum processor called "Eagle" that contains 127 qubits. A 433 qubit processor known as the "osprey" is expected to be introduced in 2022.
The 1,121 qubit quantum processor "Condor" from IBM, planned for 2023, could be the company's first really useful quantum computer for companies.
IBM's roadmap is subject to a milestone planned for 2023. The company plans to release a 1,121 qubit quantum processor called "Condor". Gil believes that the moment will mark a "turning point" when companies can perform certain calculations on a quantum computer faster, cheaper and more efficiently than on a regular computer. he calls this the beginning era of "quantum advantage".
"Building this machine itself will be an incredible feat, but it will show us with plenty of evidence whether this other" – the 1 million qubit machine – "is possible," says Gil.
If IBM can hit the 1,121 qubit target over the next three years, it is confident that it can meet the deadline for a 1 million qubit machine by 2030. This computer will mark the culmination of decades of scientific research and breakthroughs, including the foundational work of Charles Bennett, a pioneering scientist and IBM contributor.
“We know the thing on the right is a world changing machine,” Gil says, referring to the 1 million qubit processor. "It is on the short list of the most important events in the history of information technology. Building such a machine is the great goal of the field."
IBM believes that "quantum volume" will improve exponentially, a fictional measure that takes into account a processor's propensity to malfunction. As machines become more controllable and less prone to failure, they become more useful.
The Montreal quantum computer, highlighted in green on the right, refers to the previously released 27-qubit Falcon processor from IBM.
Companies such as JPMorgan Chase and ExxonMobil are already registered as customers of IBM's quantum hardware.
Scott Aaronson, a computer science professor and quantum theorist at the University of Texas at Austin, says IBM's plans are "ambitious" even though they match the opposing teams' schedules. "We're not exactly short of plans and roadmaps in this hype-filled area," he says.
According to Aaronson, the key will be how IBM "keeps the error rate of its quantum computers" low, as qubit technology can be "an integration and calibration problem".
"Events were not kind to those who promised useful gadgets just around the corner, or to those who said it was fundamentally impossible and all a fantasy," added Aaronson.
An IBM engineer is working on one of the company's quantum computers. Image credit: Connie Zhou for IBM
The competition is tough. That summer, Honeywell unveiled a quantum computer that was claimed to be more powerful than any other, as measured by IBM's preferred quantum volume metric. Quantum volume evaluates a machine on the basis of three characteristics: the number of qubits, the degree of connectivity between the qubits, and the general quality of the qubit, ie its ability to avoid errors.
However, it is everyone's race. In August, IBM released a 32-qubit quantum processor with a quantum volume of 64 that matches Honeywell. The competition is expected to stay head to head for the foreseeable future.
IBM and Honeywell build different types of hardware. Honeywell relies on vacuum-suspended ytterbium atoms (the "ion trap"), while IBM uses supercooled semiconductors ("superconducting qubits"). The methods have unique advantages and disadvantages, and it is unclear which approach can ultimately take the lead.
In a broader sense, a geopolitical competition is taking place in which the US and Europe vie with China for dominance in the emerging industry. This month the White House pledged $ 1 billion for the effort alongside companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Intel. Meanwhile, China itself spends billions of dollars and publishes groundbreaking experiments under the direction of its leading scientific light, the quantum physicist Pan Jianwei.
Enormous booty will go to the winner. Aside from myriad advances in science, technology, and business, there are serious potential implications for national security. The researchers are already working to prop up the foundations of data security that could collapse in the near future due to a fully functional quantum computer.
The IBM Research Center is the company's earliest location to reopen after the pandemic has stalled. The engineers work hard to meet their deadlines and this reporter even caught Gil pulling some engineers aside to tell them to remember to take some time off.
All of this is a marathon, not a sprint, after all.
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