One of the secrets to building the world’s most powerful computer is probably perched by your bathroom sink.
At IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York State’s Westchester County, scientists always keep a box of dental floss—Reach is the preferred brand—close by in case they need to tinker with their oil-drum-size quantum computers, the latest of which can complete certain tasks millions of times as fast as your laptop.
Inside the shimmering aluminum canister of IBM’s System One, which sits shielded by the same kind of protective glass as the Mona Lisa, are three cylinders of diminishing circumference, rather like a set of Russian dolls. Together, these encase a chandelier of looping silver wires that cascade through chunky gold plates to a quantum chip in the base. To work properly, this chip requires super-cooling to 0.015 kelvins—a smidgen above absolute zero and colder than outer space. Most materials contract or grow brittle and snap under such intense chill. But ordinary dental floss, it turns out, maintains its integrity remarkably well if you need to secure wayward wires.
“But only the unwaxed, unflavored kind,” says Jay Gambetta, IBM’s vice president of quantum. “Otherwise, released vapors mess everything up.”
It’s a curiously homespun facet of a technology that is set to transform pretty much everything. Quantum’s unique ability to crunch stacks of data is already optimizing the routes of thousands of fuel tankers traversing the globe, helping decide which ICU patients require the most urgent care, and mimicking chemical processes at the atomic level to better design new materials. It also promises to supercharge artificial intelligence, with the power to better train algorithms that can finally turn driverless cars and drone taxis into a reality. Quantum AI simulations exhibit a “degree of effectiveness and efficiency that is mind-boggling,” U.S. National Cyber Director Chris Inglis tells TIME.
Quantum’s earliest adopters are asset-management firms—for which incorporating quantum calculations involves few increased overhead costs—but commercial uses aren’t far behind. Spanish firm Multiverse Computing has run successful pilot projects with multinational clients like BASF and Bosch that show its quantum algorithms can double foreign-exchange trading profits and catch almost four times as many production-line defects. “Quantum deep-learning algorithms are completely different from classical ones,” says Multiverse CEO Enrique Lizaso Olmos. “You can train them faster, try more strategies, and they are much better at getting the correlations that matter from a lot of data.”
Tech giants from Google to Amazon and Alibaba—not to mention nation-states vying for technological supremacy—are racing to dominate this space. The global quantum-computing industry is projected to grow from $412 million in 2020 to $8.6 billion in 2027, according to an International Data Corp. analysis.
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