Since the 1950s, IBM has made its monolithic mainframe computers, the product for which it is most famous, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. On Wednesday, the technology giant deepened its presence in the Hudson River Valley city by opening a facility dedicated to a new kind of hardware that could be just as important to the company’s future: the quantum computer.
IBM’s new special-purpose data center, called the IBM quantum computation center, is stocked with five quantum computers, with plans to add four more by next month, the company said. As of Wednesday, IBM partners—businesses such as ExxonMobil and JPMorgan Chase as well as universities and others—were granted access to the machines over the “cloud,” meaning remotely via an Internet connection.
Once theoretical, quantum computers are moving slowly, if not surely, from the realm of science experimentation to usefulness—and their builders, IBM, Google, and Intel among them, are making preparations for increasingly interested business customers. Organizations across just about every industry—from military to finance and energy to biotech—are dabbling on quantum machines, taking early stabs at software that could, in years to come, overhaul their operations and yield scientific breakthroughs.
“To us, we’ve crossed the threshold from taking a technology that was essentially in the lab and matured it to the point where it is accessible to the world,” Dario Gil, head of IBM Research, told Fortune. “It’s more than a symbol—it’s a delivery now.”
What’s Inside the IBM Quantum Computation Center
IBM first revealed its plans at the beginning of the year for a Poughkeepsie-based quantum computing center at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The news accompanied another attention-grabber: the unveiling of the IBM Q System One, a new quantum computer designed for reliability.
Of the newly available machines, two represent the latest iteration of the Q System One. The machines contain 20 qubits, or “quantum bits,” a measure of their potential computing power.
Whereas classical computers, like laptops and smartphones, use bits, or “binary digits” (with values represented by “1” or “0”) to store information, quantum computers can take on a wide spectrum of intermediary values, greatly enhancing their potential power. Each additional qubit boosts computing power exponentially, but also destabilizes the computer—a hurdle quantum engineers have yet to overcome.
IBM’s three other quantum computers on site contain five qubits apiece. By mid-October, the company plans to install a 53-qubit machine, a potentially far more powerful, albeit less reliable, device.
While the qubit is the most publicly recognizable quantum computing measure, IBM prefers to highlight another metric, so-called quantum volume, which aims to quantify these computers’ stability. In March, IBM said it had achieved the “highest quantum volume to date,” a result it presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society, a prestigious scientific group.
IBM’s machines have fewer qubits than rivals. Last year Intel unveiled a 49-qubit quantum computer chip. Soon after, Google said it created a 72-qubit one. Not to be outdone, Rigetti Computing, a small quantum computing startup based in California, later said it intended to build a 128-qubit quantum chip.
Quantum computers with more qubits are, generally, more unstable.
What Quantum Computing Means for IBM—And Everyone Else
IBM sees establishing leadership in quantum computing as a way to reclaim the business glory it enjoyed during the mainframe era of the 60’s and 70’s. The company has struggled to find its footing in the cloud computing era, suffering persistent revenue declines as it battles rivals, such as Amazon and Microsoft.
Quantum computing is still years away from practical application. IBM’s Gil estimates that it could be three-to-four years before “we have a machine that can actually solve some problem that matters and has some relevance, either to business or to science, in a meaningful way we couldn’t do classically.”
Truly groundbreaking advances could be a decade away, or longer. Despite the extended timeline, some experts, such as Matthew Brisse, a VP at market research firm Gartner, are encouraging researchers and businesses to roll up their sleeves and test out the new equipment sooner rather than later.
“There’s still a big need for universities and chief information officers to pay attention to this quantum space and get exposed now, because you’re just not gonna learn this stuff overnight—it’s a long runway,” Brisse said.
IBM’s Poughkeepsie facility adds to the company’s quantum data center footprint. Another set of IBM quantum computers is housed in Yorktown Heights, NY, home to IBM Research, the company’s R&D unit, which produces much of the behind-the-scenes science.
An IBM spokesperson declined to disclose the exact location of the quantum computation center in Poughkeepsie, or to share images of the facility, citing competitive reasons and security concerns.
“There’s a lot of sensitivity around quantum systems and so we try to be pretty tight lipped about that,” Gil said.