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Since 2016, IBM has offered online access to a quantum computer. Anyone can log in and execute commands on a 5-qubit or 14-qubit machine located in Yorktown Heights, New York, from the comfort of their own home. This month, I finally tried it—nervously. I did not know what I was doing and worried I might break the hardware. “You won’t mess anything up,” IBM physicist James Wootton assured me via Skype.

I chose the 5-qubit machine. The online interface resembles a musical score consisting of five horizontal lines, one line corresponding to each quantum bit, or qubit. Qubits, the basic building block of a quantum computer, are pieces of hardware that represent numbers, just like the transistors in your computer—except they obey the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics. Designs vary, but IBM’s qubits consist of tiny circuits made of superconducting wire, kept in a refrigerator very close to absolute zero. The circuits can only hold information at low temperatures.


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