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A Cool House for Mr Quantum

IBM builds a giant fridge for the world’s first one-million-qubit quantum computer under development

As the race for the perfect quantum computer gets hotter and hotter, scientists are looking for cooler and cooler places to keep it in! Yes, they are going to physically put the world’s largest quantum computer till date inside a massive refrigerator – and IBM is building both of them: the computer as well as the fridge.

Quantum computing depends on the unpredictable quantum properties of a particle – and those properties can only be induced in an environment that is supercool. And there lies the catch! The more you want to scale up the computing capacities of a quantum computer, you would need to proportionally decrease the temperature. Now, look at the quantum computer that IBM is developing – it is going to be the world’s first one-million-qubit quantum computer! Just for the sake of perspective, the capacity of IBM’s current operational quantum computers stands at 65 qubits, while that of their competitor – Google – is 53 qubits. And both these machines can perform within a few minutes computations that would take ten thousand years for a conventional processor to complete. Hope that clearly explains the power and magnitude of a one-million-qubit quantum computer!

Close-up of a quantum computing system; Image courtesy: IBM

From the above, it is now obvious that to induce and sustain the quantum state for such a scaled-up quantum machine, the surrounding temperature must be maintained at unimaginable low levels – something that would not be possible through the use of commercial cooling systems currently available. Additionally, complications regarding preservation of vacuum integrity and balancing the weight of the various components needed for chilling had to be effectively addressed too.

Hence, to house that massive quantum machine being developed, IBM decided to build itself a suitable massive refrigerator too. Legendary computer scientist Alan Kay had once commented that any serious software company should build its own hardware too. IBM seems to be taking that comment to its next logical extension in terms of quantum computing: manufacturers of quantum supercomputers, should build their own refrigeration system too.

Going by press releases, the under-development giant fridge is 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Its interior temperature will be around 15 millikelvin (-459 degrees Fahrenheit); that would be even colder than outer space! IBM has named it “Goldeneye” – yes, after the eponymous James Bond movie. It is going to be a unique dilution refrigerator to house the large quantum chips, and equipped with the technology to connect multiple such quantum units to build a super-system, similar to the way multi-core architecture works with classical processing chips.

No deadlines have been announced yet, and it is only subject to speculation when this one-million-qubit quantum computer will be completed, along with the supercool Goldeneye refrigerator. But work is on at full swing at IBM.

Work in progress at the bottom of “Goldeneye” the giant super-fridge; Image courtesy: IBM

Jay Gambetta, vice president of quantum computing at IBM, has compared IBM’s quantum computers to the Apollo moon missions in a company blog. If executed as planned, that analogy would be no exaggeration for the world of computing!

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