Stories from the Frontlines of Institute Research

Progress doesn’t happen in a straight line. It comes about as the result of hard work, continual experimentation, constant tinkering, fits of inspiration, rigorous analysis, and the occasional moment of clarity. Put more simply, progress is the result of science. In these stories, we’re capturing science in action, shining a light on the ways that our researchers think, the advances they’re making, and their aspirations to improve our world. Follow along as we update the progress being made in each of our themes.

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IBM THINK blog article

Paving the Path to Universal Quantum Computing

By Dario Gil and Scott Crowder

Quantum computing is the most exciting new frontier of information technology. A universal quantum computer promises us more complete knowledge of our environment, down to the molecules that make up everything around us. And much like when the first room-sized computers were switched on in the 1940s, a quantum computer’s full potential is yet unknown and untapped. That’s why IBM is announcing the industry’s first commercial program to build a universal quantum computer: we are flipping the switch on something that doesn’t exist today.

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IBM & Warwick image highly reactive triangular molecule for the first time


Of big brains and tiny devices: Here comes the Internet of the Body

Dario Gil

Hyperimaging and AI will give us superhero vision

Dario Gil

June 2016
A letter from Dario Gil, Director of the Frontiers Institute

June 2016
Introducing the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a new collaborative research initiative

June 2016
Explore the research agenda

Inside one of the quietest labs in the world

360 video tour: A lab where the invisible is made visible

Alberto Valdes Garcia

Making the invisible visible

Inside the quantum computing lab at the Thomas J Watson Research Center

Jay Gambetta

Meet Dr. Jay Gambetta, Manager – Theory of quantum computing and information at IBM Research

360 video tour: A lab where scientists make quantum leaps

Jerry M Chow

Meet Dr. Jerry M Chow, Manager – Experimental Quantum Computing at IBM Research


A Letter from Dario Gil, IBM Research Science and Solutions Vice President

Dario Gil

Dear Science Enthusiasts:

Advances in the physical sciences have been fueling the IT industry for many decades. As we approach the limits of Moore’s Law, IBM is poised to transform new breakthroughs in the physical sciences to reimagine the very nature of computation.

I’d like to invite you to join the newly established IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a consortium that develops and shares ground-breaking computing technologies and explores their business implications. Institute members hail from a variety of industries and countries. Members leverage IBM’s research talent and cutting-edge infrastructure in an effort to spur world-changing innovations with global impact.

Each institute project has a dedicated principal investigator and a team of scientists and engineers. The scholar-in-residence program enables technical staff from member organizations to work side-by-side with Institute scientists at IBM research.

This site will serve as a scientific reporting project, introducing visitors to the Institute, its scientists, members and research. I welcome you to follow along as we chart the next frontier of computing.

For more information about the Institute research projects and details on becoming a member, visit: Join us.

With best regards,
Dario Gil
Vice President of Science and Solutions
IBM Research

Introducing the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, A New Collaborative Research Initiative

IBM Research is changing the model for how breakthrough innovations occur

By Jeffrey M. O’Brien and Bernhard Warner
Illustration by Anthony Zazzi

Society’s innovation engine is under threat. You may not read about it in the technology or business press. But you’ll hear plenty in the hallways of research centers around the world. Taxpayers, shareholders, university trustees and boards of directors are no longer investing in scientific exploration the way they did a generation ago.

More corporate and federally funded research centers and university labs dedicated to basic science are shuttered every year. According to the Industrial Research Institute, 34 research labs ceased operations between 2010 and 2014 as funding from governments, corporations and universities dried up. Even corporate R&D budgets, typically centered on product development with shorter-term horizons, are under siege. According to the IRI, companies around the world spent about 3 percent less on R&D in 2015 than they did in 2000. Basic research has fared even worse; expenditures have dropped roughly 18 percent.

There are various reasons for this pullback, ranging from shrinking tax revenue and quarterly investor pressure to a general decrease in the willingness to take big risks. But whatever the root cause, the implications are enormous. Many studies have shown that cuts to R&D spending reduce global GDP over time. And here’s what makes the trend especially pernicious: By restricting high-risk, high-reward research, we rob future generations of the types of technological and medical breakthroughs that can spawn new industries, improve human health and solve seemingly intractable problems. It was society’s commitment to basic research after World War II that ushered in the greatest age of advancement we’ve ever seen, laying the foundation for the rise of the laser, GPS, the Human Genome Project and, of course, the Internet.

With so much at stake, researchers at IBM have decided to take action. They’ve formed the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, a new consortium built on open and collaborative research in which member companies from diverse industries will leverage IBM’s research talent and cutting-edge infrastructure in an effort to spur world-changing innovations with global impact.

Of course IBM has an impressive history of technological innovation on its own. The company spends billions of dollars every year on R&D and operates a dozen state-of-the-art labs around the world. Six IBMers have been awarded a Nobel Prize, and the company is responsible for many important innovations, from the magnetic stripe, the UPC and DRAM, to the scanning tunneling microscope, Deep Blue, which defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, and Watson, which beat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011. IBM Research has also collaborated with hundreds of clients over the years. But the Frontiers Institute represents a deeper level of cooperation and transparency. For the first time, IBM Research is exposing a detailed vision of the future and an unprecedented number of new technologies.

The members are all highly talented with proven track records of success. These are the people with whom we want to take risks, and we believe this type of cross-industry collaboration will accelerate innovation. We’ll all benefit as a result.

“This is a fairly radical step because we think that’s what’s required,” says Dario Gil, IBM Science and Solutions vice president. “The members are all highly talented with proven track records of success. These are the people with whom we want to take risks, and we believe this type of cross-industry collaboration will accelerate innovation. We’ll all benefit as a result.” Corporate research is often kept under wraps for good reason. One proprietary scientific breakthrough can provide a company a competitive advantage for years to come. But Gil and his team think this new approach will encourage members to be more visionary and will spur more meaningful innovations. “A lot of the funding that goes into driving innovation today has to do with developing new business models or technology applications,” adds Sudhir Gowda, associate director of the Frontiers Institute, which is co-located in New York, California, Zurich and Tokyo. “There’s a place for that, but we need to go further. This new model for research that really pushes the technological frontiers is not only necessary, it’s long overdue.”

Heike E. Riel, an IBM Fellow and director of Physical Sciences, moderating the Technology Frontiers Summit at IBM Research – Zurich, January 26, 2016.

IBM Research has recently orchestrated a series of informational conferences about the consortium, hosting scientists from diverse industries. Institute members co-invest and gain access to all the projects and all the IP they generate. The South Korean electronics and semiconductor giant Samsung was the first to sign on. “We invest heavily in R&D and have a long and successful history of building new technology products and systems across many industries. But we immediately recognized the value of this type of collaboration,” says E. S. Jung, Executive Vice President and Head of Research in Samsung Semiconductor R&D Center. “We admire the creativity and the diversity of ideas that come out of IBM Research, and we expect cross-industry collaboration to open whole new spaces for us. We’re very proud to be the first founding member.”

Other founding members include Honda, a leader in the automotive industry with an obvious interest in learning how emerging technologies will affect the future of transportation. “We see our membership as an opportunity to collaborate broadly and deeply, to advance future mobility for human life and society with IBM’s impressive expertise in the physical sciences and materials science as well as informatics,” says Y. Sakagami, Senior Chief Engineer, Honda Automotive R&D Advanced Research Division. “We’re convinced that a collaborative, inclusive approach to basic scientific research can have long-lasting implications for our company and for the world.”

Japanese materials giant JSR is another founding member. The company has collaborated repeatedly with IBM over the years, including on the development of lithography materials for semiconductor manufacturing. JSR is widely lauded for its visionary approach to technology development and business innovation. “For JSR, this is another step in what has been a long and fruitful relationship with IBM,” says JSR President, Nobu Koshiba. “We’re excited to gain even greater exposure to the visionary work that we have come to expect from the company.”

Frontiers Institute research will be far-reaching and ambitious. Among other projects, the scientists plan to build new forms of machine intelligence that enable robots to teach themselves how to walk, as well as ways to “see” invisible phenomena by combining sensors and spatio-temporal data. Everyone involved acknowledges that this genre of scientific study has a way of revealing avenues that no one knew existed, but as a starting point, IBM Research has divided areas of exploration into three major themes.

Computing Reimagined

With the physical limits of Moore’s Law fast approaching, researchers are reinventing the computing stack. This theme will push the boundaries of machine intelligence, quantum applications and neuromorphic devices and architectures.

Data Experienced

This theme centers on developing and enhancing ways to harness data in an effort to transform our bodies, our workplaces and the physical makeup of the world. Research efforts here focus on exploring ways that computers can expand human expertise and help us make better decisions.

The Invisible Made Visible

The Frontiers Institute hopes to continue the scientific tradition of developing new instruments to discover the world around us. By exploring far beyond the visible spectrum with the hyperimager, nanoscopes, bioscopes and macroscopes, researchers intend to explore and better understand the roots of some of the world’s biggest problems.

Frontiers Institute Members will also get early access to some of the quantum leaps being developed by IBM, including the most advanced multi-qubit quantum computer. “Access to these early prototypes will be key in imagining and developing future applications. If you want to understand what a true quantum computer will do for you, you have to come here, because we’ve got the only one,” says Heike E. Riel, an IBM Fellow and director of Physical Sciences. “You won’t get it anywhere else.”

Quantum computing is a core initiative within the IBM Research Frontiers Institute. The Quantum Computing lab at the Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, is home to multiple white dilution refrigerators encasing IBM’s quantum computing processors.

The focus on computational development is rooted in a belief that the digital world of the future will require significant advances in computer architectures as well as yet-to-be discovered physical materials. And these developments need to come quickly. “To bring innovation from the lab to the market, the speed of increasingly complex research must be greatly accelerated,” Riel says. “One way to overcome this complexity and speed challenge is through strategic collaboration — in the right way, with the right people. So, a new way of interaction is needed, and that’s what the Frontiers Institute is all about.”

The consortium plans to shine a light on its work and accomplishments regularly. Researchers will share quarterly updates and mark progress as it happens — and we’ll be here covering them. The team hopes that communicating back from the frontiers of technology will both excite Frontier Institute members and ultimately increase society’s understanding of the value of research.

“There are certain people who have the appetite, the instinct and passion to go out to the edge, to explore and discover. They take risks. The best scientists and researchers have that attitude,” says Gil. “We have that spirit of discovery, and we want people to know about what we’re doing. We’re aiming not only to advance technology but also to change the way research happens — in ways that we think can greatly benefit business and society.”

The IBM Research Frontiers Institute is a consortium that develops and shares groundbreaking computing technologies and explores their business implications.

By Sudhir Gowda PhD, Associate Director of the IBM Research Frontiers Institute

Research in the Frontiers Institute brings together multidimensional expertise to work on ten projects, with the goal of dramatically accelerating innovation. The research agenda is designed to create new growth opportunities for IBM and our members by advancing the frontiers of information technology through the physical sciences and hardware innovations. The projects are organized into three themes, each of which extends a familiar quest into new territory.

Computing Reimagined

With the physical limits of Moore’s Law fast approaching, researchers are reinventing the computing stack. This theme will push the boundaries of machine intelligence, quantum applications and neuromorphic devices and architectures. Projects include:

Quantum Applications
Quantum computers are coming. What will you do with them?

Neuromorphic Devices and Architectures
Today, training a machine-learning system can take days, and often even weeks. What value would you create if training could happen in minutes, or even seconds?

Machine Intelligence
Models of the neocortex will be the basis for flexible systems that continuously learn — for vision, numeric data, robotics, and more. How will you deploy this intelligence to act on your behalf?

Data Experienced

This theme centers on developing and enhancing ways to harness data in an effort to transform our well-being, workplaces and the physical makeup of the world. Research efforts here focus on exploring ways that computers can expand human expertise and help us make better decisions. Projects include:

Internet of the Body
Miniaturization is enabling wearable sensor arrays with embedded compute, memory, communication, and power at unprecedented costs. What are the implications of this most personal of Internets?

As computing devices become intensely personal and ever smaller, the rich dynamics of side-by-side collaboration are getting lost. The conference room is ripe for reinvention. How would your group collaborate in a device they could physically walk into?

Accelerated Materials Discovery
The current development timeline for a new material is more than 10 years. Can cognitive and analytic systems learn materials science and help discover new materials in a significantly shorter time?

The Invisible Made Visible

Galileo looked through his telescope and saw our cosmos in an entirely new way. This theme continues the tradition of developing new instruments to discover the world around us. Projects include:

What decisions would you make with an instrument that allowed you to witness the hidden connections behind complex physical and man-made systems?

Microfluidic technologies may one day enable ultra-affordable, on-the-spot precision diagnostics. How could this this information change the way you manage your health?

Some of the world’s biggest problems are rooted in the nanoscale. How do invisible phenomena at the nanoscale impact your business?

What if you could see far beyond the visible spectrum, anywhere, any time?

Quantum Leaps

The IBM Research Frontiers Institute Quantum Leaps program is a special, early-access program making computing breakthroughs from IBM Research available to Institute members. The first Quantum Leaps mission is focused on developing a world-leading, multi-qubit architecture with error correction capability. Additional Quantum Leaps projects will be announced.

The World’s Most Advanced Multi-Qubit Quantum Computer
This project will explore challenging industrial applications of quantum computing.


IBM Research Labs in Yorktown Heights (NY), Almaden (CA), Zurich, and Tokyo are host facilities for Frontiers Institute projects. These Labs offer atomic imaging and manipulation, materials discovery, nano and micro-fabrication, advanced packaging and prototyping, sensor design and testing, computation, software development and much more.

How do you invent the future of computing? First, you start with complete silence

IBM Researchers built what has been described as the quietest working spaces in the world

Photo essay by Carl De Torres and Urs Siegenthaler

Deep inside the IBM Research Lab in Zurich, Switzerland, is one of the quietest places on earth. It’s called the noise-free labs and is part of the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center. Named for two IBM Nobel Laureates Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the center is designed specifically for advancing the field of nanoscience and is one of the labs used by IBM Research Frontiers Institute scientists to explore how invisible phenomena at the nanoscale impact business and society. The facility includes a 950 m2 cleanroom, which is jointly operated with the renowned Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and six noise-free labs. These noise-free labs combine passive and active measures to eliminate simultaneously all disturbances relevant to nanotechnology, including temperature and humidity fluctuations, mechanical and seismic vibrations, electro-magnetic fields and acoustic noise. This allows researchers to image particles smaller than an atom. It’s here in complete silence that the invisible is made visible.

The Silent Architect
Dr. Emanuel Lörtscher, the IBM scientist responsible for the design and realization of the noise-free labs, crouches at a portal to a chamber that houses the noise-generating equipment such as pumps, transformers, chillers and power supplies. Although isolating the equipment in this way will virtually eliminate lab-internal disturbances, the noise-free labs further employ active and passive screening methods as well as active cancellation of lab-external noise sources. Lörtscher and his colleagues hold US patent 8844221 B2 on the design of the noise-free labs.

An Atomic Looking Glass
One of the labs is home to a transmission electron microscope or TEM, which is an ultra-high-resolution electron microscope used to image atomic structures. The TEM operates on the same principle as an optical microscope, but uses a beam of electrons instead of light. The electrons are transmitted through the sample and interact with it. After passing through the lenses, the electrons are read by various detectors on a fluorescent screen. This is one of only two TEMs in the world that can be operated remotely.

Breaking the Silence
IBM Researcher Dr. Bernd Gotsmann gives us an animated lesson on imaging atomic structures. Gotsmann joined IBM in 2001 and became a research staff member in 2006. His research focuses on nanoscale electronics with applications in thermal transport, thermoelectricity, tribology, molecular electronics and nanomechanics.

A Raman microscope, which is used for “fingerprinting” molecules. Take a look at the floor and you’ll notice the special base design that eliminates vibrations.

Nanoscale Detection
A spin-polarized scanning electron microscope or spin-SEM, which is used to manipulate and detect magnetization on the nanometer scale. This research contributes to establishing a scientific foundation for spintronics, which aims at developing novel spin-based nanoscale devices for future computing.

Bespoke Science
Each lab holds a different set of tools and machines built by IBM researchers for a very specific use. It’s not uncommon to enter a lab and find equipment being taken apart and put back together for customized upgrades.

Lab Heros
IBM scientists Fabian Motzfeld, Bernd Gotsmann and Fabian Menges (left to right). Gotsmann and Menges benefited from the unique environment of the noise-free labs and invented a breakthrough technique, which they call scanning probe thermometry, to measure the temperature of nano- and macro-sized objects.

A Quantum State of Mind

Dr. Jay Gambetta, Manager, Theory of Quantum Computing and Information IBM Research

Profile by Jeffrey M. O’Brien
Photograph by Carl De Torres

Jay Gambetta

To hear Jay Gambetta tell it, growing up in rural Queensland, Australia, in the 1980s wasn’t all that unusual. OK, sure, there was that one time when a 6-foot kangaroo chased after him at a family picnic. (It wanted the crackers he was holding.) And yes, he spent an inordinate amount of time surfing the Gold Coast. But mostly, he experienced what many people his age would consider to be a normal childhood. He wandered … and he tinkered. To fight off boredom. To explore. To find order in the world.

“We’d either go surfing all day or go into the river and look for mud crabs or just get lost in the bush. There were really no boundaries as long as I was home by a certain time,” he recalls. “And I always liked working with my hands. My parents allowed me to use all kinds of tools and I would just build things: forts, go-carts, bikes, a lawnmower. It was always, OK, so here’s a bunch of old parts. What can I do with them?”

For much of his youth, Gambetta didn’t realize he could actually pursue science as a career path. He always figured he’d become a carpenter or a mechanic — until a high school teacher discovered his aptitude for mathematics and encouraged him to go to university. Once there, he found open doors and explored pathways he never knew existed.

Gambetta pursued physics and quickly learned something about himself. He was drawn to complexity and had a strong drive to understand things. The harder the subject, the better. “I started off in laser science because it sounded cool, and then I realized that the quantum physics was the hardest part,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was doing a PhD in interpretations of quantum physics, and then I realized that the most appealing part to me was quantum information science.” After completing post-doctoral work at Yale University and the Institute for Quantum Computing, Gambetta joined IBM, where he now manages a team of quantum researchers.

Controlling a quantum system with enough precision to make it compute, it’s not just about achieving more computation power, it will allow us to understand nature itself better.

Understanding behavior at the quantum scale is a notoriously mind-bending exercise, which suits Gambetta just fine. In many ways, the work he and his team do conforms perfectly to the structure of his childhood. It’s relatively unrestricted. There are lots of moving parts and tinkering with cool tools. They get lost, sometimes on purpose. And they use their hands — as well as, of course, their minds — all in an effort to find the order of the world.

The prospect of making things excites Gambetta as much today as it did three decades ago. “Controlling a quantum system with enough precision to make it compute, it’s not just about achieving more computation power, it will allow us to understand nature itself better,” he says. “But there’s also a self-serving aspect. I’ve always liked the process of learning, and one of the greatest aspects of quantum is that we’re always learning. I hope that never stops.”

Making the Invisible Visible

Alberto Valdes Garcia, Research Staff Member, Manager, RF Circuits and Systems

Profile by Bernhard Warner
Photograph by Carl De Torres

Alberto Garcia

The way Alberto Valdes Garcia remembers it, people first started noticing his passion for electronics sometime around middle school when he built an FM radio from scratch. Even at that age he could read a circuit board as easily as a map of his hometown, not far from Mexico City. He’d routinely take apart devices in the school’s electronics lab, and he saw each radio or TV-repair job as an exhilarating challenge. As he grew up, so did the complexity and scale of his projects. At university, a professor who also worked at a nearby nuclear research facility asked him and a fellow student to design and build an instrumentation system for an experimental reactor.

“Those early days in the lab gave me the confidence to say, ‘You know, I can learn how to fix something, or build something and make it work.’ And that helps me to this day,” says Valdes Garcia, a research staff member and manager of the RF Circuits and Systems at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY.

These days, he and his team are pushing the boundaries of electrical engineering in a quest to build a new type of portable imaging device that harnesses portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to make the invisible visible. The instrument, known as a hyperimager, illuminates portions of the 99.9 percent of the environment that we can’t see with the naked eye — including radio waves, microwaves, and infrared rays — to identify potential hazards and reveal new insights. “With the right camera and illumination, it’s been possible for some time to capture images at any wavelength,” says Valdes Garcia. “But what makes the hyperimager special is its ability to combine two or more separate portions of the spectrum in ways that will tell us a lot more about objects in the world around us.”

There are plenty of devices that use the electromagnetic spectrum to see the invisible. Airport passenger-control checkpoints, for example, use a millimeter-wave imager to scan for hidden objects. The International Space Station deployed a hyperspectral imager in 2010 to scan a vast area of the Gulf of Mexico stricken by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But those instruments have drawbacks. The millimeter-wave airport scanners, useful as they are, can only see across limited portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The space station’s imager is powerful, but it’s prohibitively expensive for those not on a space-program-sized budget. The prototype that Valdes Garcia’s team plans to unveil soon will be both compact and powerful. It will be no bigger than a laptop computer equipped with multiple sensors to look across a wider swath of the invisible spectra. He expects future versions to become increasingly easier to use, more affordable, more mobile, and to feature powerful image-processing and cognitive computing capabilities — making them among the smartest observation devices ever made.

From Galileo’s telescopes to Hal Anger’s gamma camera, there’s a grand tradition in science of developing new tools to see ever deeper into, and ever farther beyond, our world. This trend certainly continues at the IBM Research Frontiers Institute, where researchers are working on macroscopes, nanoscopes, bioscopes, and the hyperimager in hopes of building new tools — and improving existing ones — that can help solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

It’s not difficult to imagine the potential impact of a device capable of identifying phenomena that are opaque in the visible domain and reflecting them back to a user in the form of an identifiable image. Hyperimager-enabled cars would be able to sense dangerous roadway conditions automatically and see through heavy fog or detect black ice. Hyperimagers could prove extremely useful in the fight against counterfeiting by authenticating currencies or documents affixed with an invisible watermark. They could even zoom in on food to determine its nutritional value.

As a hardware engineer, I find true inspiration in building a tool with so much potential,” he says. “And I hope that in the future, innovators will use this technology to solve problems holding back their fields.

Like those early days in the school lab, Valdes Garcia is doing what he loves most: bringing technology to life. Only now, he adds, he has help — a team with diverse talents who shares his passion for innovation.

The Lab That Delivers the IBM Quantum Experience to the Public

IBM Researchers bring the temperature down to −459.643 degrees Fahrenheit to bring quantum computing to the world via the IBM Cloud.

Photo essay by Carl De Torres

With Moore’s Law running out of steam, technologists everywhere are scrambling to develop new forms of computing to usher in the next era of innovation. Quantum computing is widely considered to be among the most promising candidates — but bringing it to fruition means building a new architecture and mastering a new methodology. Quantum computing works fundamentally differently from the way today’s computers operate. A classical computer uses bits to process information, where each bit represents either a 1 or a 0. Quantum computing, on the other hand, uses quantum bits, or qubits, which — while in a quantum state called superposition — can represent a 1 and a 0 simultaneously. This property, along with other quantum effects like entanglement, enable quantum computers to crunch data at speeds unimaginable with classical computers. How fast? By some estimates, a quantum computer will be able to perform in one day a series of calculations that could require a classical computer a billion years to complete.

That kind of power, if it can be harnessed, holds the potential to transform entire industries. Quantum researchers imagine processing vast sums of data to, for example, accelerate pharmaceutical drug discovery, secure cloud computing systems, and unlock new facets of artificial intelligence and materials science. As of now, there is no universal quantum computer that is resilient to quantum errors — and its existence is hardly a foregone conclusion. But IBM researchers are making progress. In 2015, IBM scientists demonstrated critical breakthroughs to detect quantum errors by combining superconducting qubits in latticed arrangements with a circuit design that they believe will be scalable to larger dimensions.

Here’s a look one some of the laboratories where IBM’s finest are working to develop the first true universal quantum computer.

Cold Hard Computation
One of the major obstacles to building a quantum computer is creating and packaging high-quality qubits in a way that enables them to perform complex calculations in a controllable and scalable manner. Qubits are very fragile. Expose them to electromagnetic radiation, sound or variations in temperature, for example, and you introduce what’s known as quantum errors or decoherence. Simply put, the qubits lose their quantum information and their ability to compute. That’s why quantum systems are stored in quiet places like the cylindrical device pictured above in the IBM Quantum Computing Lab and chilled by refrigerators to near absolute zero. How cold is that? It’s a temperature consistent with outer space.

A View from Above
The dilution refrigerator may take the shape of a silo, but unlike a silo, it must be connected to operate. The top of the refrigerator is a highly engineered array of ports for inputs and outputs that serve as a bridge between the quantum processor and the IBM Cloud.

Hanging Refrigerators
Why are the dilution refrigerators elevated? Think about how a mechanic puts your car on a lift to do a tune-up. By hanging the refrigerators from racks, IBM researchers can more easily perform maintenance, install upgrades or run tests and experiments on the quantum processors within.

Constantly Refining
Members of the IBM Quantum Computing team are continually refining technical equipment and processor arrangements to expand experiments and spur discoveries. Here, IBM researcher Antonio D. Corcoles-Gonzalez installs a new trigger distribution.

Lattice Breakthrough
In 2015, IBM scientists unveiled two critical advances toward the realization of a practical quantum computer. One breakthrough involved developing a new ability to detect and measure both kinds of quantum errors simultaneously. The other was the development of a new, square quantum bit circuit design. It’s the only known physical architecture that could successfully scale to larger dimensions. The design, which features a lattice arrangement, is pictured here.

Tapping into the Qubits
Racks of microwave equipment used to control quantum processors are in every back corner of the IBM Quantum Computing Lab. Microwave signals help IBM scientists control operations on the multi-qubit chips powering the IBM Quantum Experience.

No Missed Connections
Jerry M. Chow, PhD, manager of theory of quantum computing and information at IBM Research, inspects the cables connecting a vast array of microwave equipment powering quantum computing processors in the lab.

360 Video Tour: A Lab Where The Invisible Is Made Visible

Insight into some of the world’s biggest problems can be found at the nanoscale. This lab at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, holds a unique electron microscope capable of recording movies of otherwise invisible phenomena. IBM Research Frontiers Institute scientists use this microscope to investigate processes that take place at the nanoscale and yet could impact businesses and society at large.

Capturing the Zeitgeist with Quantum Computing

Jerry M. Chow, Manager, Experimental Quantum Computing IBM Research

Profile by Jeffrey M. O’Brien
Photograph by Carl De Torres

In the spring of 2003, Jerry Chow was living something of a double life. A 20-year-old Harvard student of physics and applied mathematics by day, he’d often wrap up his low-temperature experiments at the lab and reach for his notebook and SLR camera. Then he’d dash out to cover breaking news for The Harvard Crimson, the daily college newspaper that has featured the work of contributors who would go on to become U.S. presidents, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, prominent historians … and a leading expert in quantum computing.

It didn’t bother anyone on staff that Chow knew next to nothing about photography. “I had to teach myself about proper lighting and how to capture people in motion at the precise moment,” he recalls. “I’m still no expert. But I just learned by doing, by throwing myself into whatever assignment I was given.” He covered music, sports and a range of events that can only be found on a college campus, from lectures on post-911 global terrorism to competitive dance-offs. Most of the assignments were a few minutes’ walk from the lab — but they often felt like a million miles away. The variety of stories and the sheer unpredictable nature of being a Crimson photographer pushed Chow outside his comfort zone, and energized him.

Lately, you’re far more likely to find Chow’s byline in a peer-reviewed journal than a newspaper. He’s co-authored 38 scientific publications on quantum mechanics, including a breakthrough 2015 Nature Communications article in which he and his IBM Research colleagues demonstrated how they simultaneously measured and identified the two key errors that must be overcome to make a scalable quantum computer. They also revealed a new, “square” quantum bit circuit that they believe will become the core architecture for these supercomputers. But even while succeeding as a scientist, Chow continues to draw from his experience at The Crimson. He says he even still thinks like a journalist, which can be a particularly valuable skill for an experimental physicist. “Throughout my career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the questions, ‘What is the right story to tell with quantum?’” he says. “How can I best describe it?”

I find that a lot of people understand there are limitations to today’s computers and they want to know what’s next.

If Chow were covering a story about his field of research today, he says the headline might read: Quantum Computers Will Unlock the Mysteries of Nature. He believes quantum computing has the potential to solve certain problems that are impossible to solve on today’s supercomputers and he’s been saying as much to broad audiences, including in a recent TED talk and on the cocktail party circuit. “I find that a lot of people understand there are limitations to today’s computers and they want to know what’s next,” he says.

Based on the feedback he’s been getting, Chow feels like quantum computing has entered the zeitgeist. “People used to think of quantum mechanics as something that was just weird. But now more and more people regard it as cool,” he says. “That’s an indication of how far we’ve come. It’s a great story!”

Winfried Wilcke PhD

Winfried Wilcke is the Senior Manager for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and a Distinguished Research Staff Member at IBM Research – Almaden. After earning a PhD in Experimental Nuclear Physics in his native Germany, Winfried joined IBM Research in 1983, and has since lea numerous successful projects, including the research leading to the IBM SP series of large supercomputers and IBM IceCube. During the nineties, he served as CTO of HAL Computer.

His recent research is focused on cognitive computing and advanced energy storage, which he believes will be critical for the renewable energy economy. To wit, it led to the launch of the IBM Battery 500 project. In the cognitive space, he initiated a new project on machine intelligence — going beyond traditional machine learning — with the goal of building machines that autonomously make and act on predictions from sensory data. Outside of the lab, Winfried enjoys flying his collection of airplanes, sailing, and diving. He is a passionate writer, and the author of the 2008 collection of stories entitled Random Walk.

360 Video Tour: A Lab Where Scientists Make Quantum Leaps

Inside the IBM Quantum Computing Lab at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, scientists have built a quantum processor that users can access through a first-of-a-kind quantum computing platform delivered via the IBM Cloud. IBM’s quantum computing platform is a core initiative within the newly formed IBM Research Frontiers Institute. Inspired by nature and the laws of quantum mechanics, quantum computing has the potential to solve certain challenges that are beyond the reach of today’s classical computers.