IBM collaborates with British designers to create first standalone quantum supercomputer
As IBM reveal the new ‘Q System One’ in Las Vegas, Wallpaper* discusses the design behind the machine with London-based Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio
American information technology giant IBM has teamed up with two of London’s best-known creative studios, Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio, specialising in industrial design and architectural interiors respectively, to create the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing system – the newly unveiled ‘Q System One’.
Industrial design has a long relationship with computing. We consider todays Macs and Dells to be the ultimate in sleek, tech-centric product design, but from the industry’s earliest days, the power of the microchip was conveyed first and foremost through physical form. IBM is over a century old, a massive multinational even before the dawn of the computer age.
Through research and innovation, IBM came to dominate the nascent market for mainframe computers, parlaying their experience into ‘small’, room-sized machines for commercial, scientific and military use, before ultimately becoming the dominant player at the dawn of the desktop era.
Designers like Eliot Noyes gave IBM’s products a crisp, modernist midcentury casing, making their massive forms appear perfectly at home in the glass and steel HQs of the Fortune 500. From the System/360 of the mid-1960s through to the Kubrickian monolith of Deep Blue, IBM’s aesthetic helped define the supercomputer.
All of these milestones could be kicked into touch by the next generation of computing technology. 2019 marks a new era for computing with the unveiling of IBM’s ‘Q System One’ at CES in Las Vegas. Billed as the world’s first integrated universal approximate quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use, the Q System One splices atomic level science with the steely visual sophistication of its conventional forebears.
The primary design challenge for Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio was to create an airtight quantum enclosure – more of which shortly – a formidable task that required half-inch thick borosilicate glass, crafted into a 9-ft cubed openable enclosure. Consultants included museum specialists Goppion, usually found protecting artwork and valuables in the world’s biggest art galleries, and the end result is crafted to perfection, moodily lit and set to crunch numbers like never before.
For the layperson, quantum computing is not easily summarised. In conventional computers, binary bits have a value of either ‘1’ or ‘0’; a quantum computer uses ‘qubits’, unstable, atomic-sized equivalents that have multiple states, theoretically vastly expanding the processing and problem-solving capabilities of specially written algorithms. That’s the goal, but the process is massively complicated by the delicacy of qubits; interference of practically any kind renders their quantum properties null and void.
This is a major step forward in the commercialisation of quantum computing.
The Q System One sets out to provide the hardware that’ll support the science, with a modular architecture that deals with the key issues. Cryogenic cooling keeps the system temperature as close to absolute zero as possible, accompanied by the physical hardware and engineering to calibrate and quantify such utterly precise measurements. On top of all of this is a shell of conventional computing, needed to provide cloud access and link the system back to the forthcoming Quantum Computation Center, located in IBM Poughkeepsie, New York, the historic home of the company’s mainframe systems.
Quantum computing is still at a very nascent stage, but IBM have gone all out with the ‘Q System One’, creating a visual and technological ecosystem that the company hopes will shape its future. There are still massive challenges ahead, to be sure, but with Map and UDS, IBM has taken an aesthetic approach that amplifies the epochal and iconic significance of bringing quantum computing out of the lab and into the real world.
Wallpaper* talks to Will Howe of Map Project Office and Jason Holley of Universal Design Studio about ‘Q System One’.
Wallpaper*: What sort of acknowledgement are you making to IBM’s long association with cutting-edge industrial design?
Will and Jason: IBM’s first corporate-wide design programme commissioned by Thomas J Watson in 1957, encompassed everything from products to buildings and corporate identity and included partnerships with design legends such as Charles & Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Paul Rand. This led to the production of some of the century’s most iconic designs.
Building on this legacy was very important to us and we took specific influences from computers like the IBM 1401 and 729, which adhered to rigorous principals of framing, colour and proportioning to create a strong visual identity. A key influence was also the system 360 which made ‘classical’ computing scalable and practical. In the same way, IBM System Q will help to democratise quantum computing.
W*: How can something as abstract (to the layperson) as quantum computing be represented physically? Do you think there are some preconceptions about what a supercomputer should look like?
W & J: There is no existing precedent, so we had the rare and unique opportunity to define the visual language of this exciting and groundbreaking technology in a way that has never been attempted before. Our challenge was to satisfy the computer’s functional demands, whilst defining the archetype that this new form of computing would require.
W*: How does the physical form of the computer relate to the spaces it will be housed in? Is it intended to be a focal point of a space?
W & J: Unlike previous generations of quantum computers, where components are isolated and dispersed throughout a lab, IBM Q System One fits into a compact footprint alongside other systems within a dedicated data centre. This is a major step forward in the commercialisation of quantum computing.
W*: What was the most challenging element of the design? Did the materials used have to work alongside the extreme range of temperatures?
W & J: Materiality played a large role in defining this new visual language, but the most challenging element was to design a fully integrated system that addressed one of the most challenging aspects of quantum computing: continuously maintaining the quality of qubits used to perform quantum computations.
To realise this ambition of a single, consolidated volume, the system was separated into a series of complex, interwoven structures. Each structure supports a custom set of highly refined components, that are designed to exist in close proximity, but in complete isolation from one another. The components remain free from the ambient noise of temperature fluctuations, vibrations and electromagnetic waves, keeping the qubits in optimal conditions. §