Many interesting but practically intractable problems can be reduced to that of finding the ground state of a system of interacting spins; however, finding such a ground state remains computationally difficult

^{1}. It is believed that the ground state of some naturally occurring spin systems can be effectively attained through a process called quantum annealing

^{2, 3}. If it could be harnessed, quantum annealing might improve on known methods for solving certain types of problem

^{4, 5}. However, physical investigation of quantum annealing has been largely confined to microscopic spins in condensed-matter systems

^{6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12}. Here we use quantum annealing to find the ground state of an artificial Ising spin system comprising an array of eight superconducting flux quantum bits with programmable spin–spin couplings. We observe a clear signature of quantum annealing, distinguishable from classical thermal annealing through the temperature dependence of the time at which the system dynamics freezes. Our implementation can be configured

*in situ*to realize a wide variety of different spin networks, each of which can be monitored as it moves towards a low-energy configuration

^{13, 14}. This programmable artificial spin network bridges the gap between the theoretical study of ideal isolated spin networks and the experimental investigation of bulk magnetic samples. Moreover, with an increased number of spins, such a system may provide a practical physical means to implement a quantum algorithm, possibly allowing more-effective approaches to solving certain classes of hard combinatorial optimization problems.