IBM Ships Its First Quantum Computer Outside US

Scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute have announced that they’ve received the delivery of a package most of us dream of, provided you’ve got a steady supply of liquid nitrogen on hand, a degree in theoretical physics (as opposed to an academic 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 significant goalpost on its long-term drive to commercialize quantum computing. A method in Japan is expected to come online in July.

“Quantum computing opens up new possibilities for both the industry and society,” says Ms.Hannah Venzl, the Fraunhofer Competence Network Quantum Computing coordinator. “Drugs and vaccines could be developed even quickly, logistics and transport systems optimized, climate models improved, or new materials better simulated. To make all this happen and to actively shape the rapid development in quantum computing, we need to build 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 techniques 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 call. The 127-bit Quantum Eagle is expected to launch this year. IBM claims it will commercialize a 1,121 qubit system by 2023.

Until now, IBM has only allowed clients to access systems like the Quantum System One only via cloud computing services, now physically shipping these systems to other countries demonstrates how much confidence the company has in its ability to deploy the hardware. After all, if your quantum CPU breaks, you can’t actually order for a replacement from Newegg (or Mindfactory.de).

 

Getting the machine back up and running during the pandemic was anything but easy. The Fraunhofer researchers and IBM’s quantum team had to work on a method for assembling the system remotely after in-person work was impossible. This involved the US team being up until two AM for several weeks running 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 critical 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 many people have no idea when or how quantum computing could even be helpful. Big Blue has over 150 organizations in its Quantum network, including “research labs, universities, start-ups, and enterprises.” Still, 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.