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IBM quantum computing system, apps lab seek commercial users

IBM finally introduced its first integrated quantum computer that is designed for commercial accounts. But the emergence of commercial apps may take some time.

IBM's latest quantum computing plan takes a page from the blueprint of Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come -- we hope.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), CEO Ginni Rometty discussed IBM quantum computing advances: a more compact, fully integrated system that's designed for use in research labs and commercial accounts and the creation of a quantum computing center in New York's Hudson Valley.

The idea is, taken together, these will spur customers to envision and develop commercial applications that tap the power of quantum computing.

The IBM Q System One contains thousands of components housed in a 9-foot airtight glass-paneled cube, designed for use in commercial environments.

IBM executives declined to say when they expected third parties and others to develop commercial applications for the system, but most observers said they believe the vast majority of applications initially created will focus on scientific and research communities.

"What you will see is more apps for things like managing massive sensor environments and data sets where the scope and complexity is huge," said Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates LLC, a research and consulting firm in Needham, Mass.

IBM cryostat wired for a 50 qubit system, circa November 2017.
IBM cryostat wired for a 50 qubit system, circa November 2017.

The new design aside, IBM disappointed at least one expert at CES by the dearth of new and practical hardware and software features, such as an updated software development kit, since the company first showcased its quantum system in March 2017.

The Holy Grail is to get quantum computing out of the realm of quantum physics and to be something more manageable by IT shops.

"When one of the highlights has to do with improved design to accommodate cryogenics, you aren't going to get many commercial accounts interested in supporting that sort of environment," said one longtime analyst, who declined to be identified.

IBM quantum computing lab beckons customers, partners

IT shops and developers interested in adopting [IBM's quantum computer] will need a long lead time ... Development for this will not be for the fainthearted.
Judith Hurwitzpresident and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates

IBM further backed up its quantum computing commitment with the proposed IBM Q Quantum Computation Center to open later this year in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The center will house a range of different cloud-based quantum systems that will be available to users, business partners and academic institutions that are members of the IBM Q Network.

ExxonMobil will join the IBM Q Network and partner with IBM to work on advancing quantum computing to develop new energy and manufacturing technologies, said Vijay Swarup, ExxonMobil's vice president of research and development, during a CES presentation.

The IBM quantum computing lab should encourage and even accelerate development for the technology.

"Opening up the lab in Poughkeepsie [was] something they had to do to get more collaborative development going," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects in Washington, D.C.

IBM 9x9 cube quantum system installation at Goppion in Milan, Italy (July 2018)
IBM 9x9 cube quantum system installation at Goppion in Milan, Italy (July 2018)

Others said it's way too soon to expect IBM to deliver a quantum computer that even sophisticated IT shops can fully support. A more practical, near-term scenario is quantum computing offered as a cloud-based service, which eliminates the need for expensive investments by IT shops to physically maintain quantum environments.

"Even if [IBM] offered it broadly as a service right now, you wouldn't exactly have developers lined up with commercial apps today," Hurwitz said. "IT shops and developers interested in adopting this thing need a long lead time, and they need to start now. Development for this will not be for the fainthearted."

Another benefit to quantum computing as a service is it sidesteps the cost to find and train IT personnel to implement and maintain the systems on premises, Hurwitz added. Key to trained personnel will be proper education of both existing IT professionals and especially aspiring IT professionals in colleges and high schools. And engineers must be educated about the technology, as well as the right questions to ask.

"No matter how much data you can process, if you are asking the wrong questions, it's not going to matter," said Robin Raskin, consultant and founder of Living In Digital Times in Closter, N.J.

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