Jerry Chow wants to make quantum computers you can actually count on

Illustrated portrait of Jerry Chow
Lauren Tamaki for Vox

A reliable quantum computer system could unleash truly amazing technological progress, as long as the engineers can get it to work.

It’s hard enough to understand quantum computing, the potentially transformative next generation of computing. Unlike classical computers, which are powered by chips packed with billions of tiny transistors that process information in the binary form of a bit — either 0 or 1 — quantum computers process information using qubits, which can represent 0 or 1 or both simultaneously. And things just get more complicated from there. Pretty soon you start encountering terms like “superposition” and “entanglement” and “decoherence” and a bunch of other concepts from quantum mechanics that will make you wish you took more than one college physics class.

What this means is that quantum computers can vastly speed up computing time, since they make many calculations at the same time, while even the fastest classical computers do so one by one. But if understanding the principles of quantum computing is tough, what’s really difficult is actually building one.

Few people know that better than Jerry Chow. As the manager of the experimental quantum computing team at IBM, Chow is tasked with actually putting together, piece by piece, the hardware that will be capable of taking computing into the future. The potential of quantum computing — including solving problems and creating complex models that would be impossible on even the most powerful classical supercomputer — is incredible, but making it a reality won’t be easy: The machines themselves are very, very sensitive.

On a reporting visit last year to IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York’s Hudson Valley, Chow showed me just how sensitive. Inside the IBM Quantum System One model, one of its most advanced quantum computers, are coils that carry superfluids that keep the temperature of the hardware colder than the vacuum of outer space. That’s needed, Chow told me, because even slight variations of temperature or noise or vibration can cause those quantum qubits to essentially collapse, decohering out of a quantum state before the computer can complete its calculations. The challenge for quantum computer engineers like Chow is to build a machine that can keep that quantum dance going longer and longer — which is what’s needed to scale the systems “beyond thousands or even tens of thousands of qubits to perhaps millions of them,” as he told me.

If they can do that, the possibilities are literally exponential. Already this summer, IBM researchers were able to use a quantum computer to solve a particularly difficult physics problem more precisely than the best classical computer. Experts hailed the accomplishment as a major step toward truly workable quantum computers — machines that could begin to solve problems in the real world, not just in the laboratory. And given how foundational computing power is to virtually every advancement we’ve enjoyed over the past few decades, from smartphones to electric vehicles to AI, an effective, reliable quantum computing system could be one of the most important accelerators of technological progress we’ll see this century — provided people like Jerry Chow can get them to work.


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