In Depth

Has Google reached ‘quantum supremacy’?

IBM questions technology giant’s breakthrough in quantum computing

Google claims it has achieved “quantum supremacy” in the field of computing, building a system that can solve problems that a traditional computer, in practical terms, cannot.

Researchers at the company revealed their breakthrough in a blog post and article in the scientific journal Nature, claiming their 53-bit Sycamore processor can handle in about 200 seconds a calculation that would take a “state-of-the-art classical supercomputer” approximately 10,000 years.

“This dramatic increase in speed compared to all known classical algorithms is an experimental realization of quantum supremacy for this specific computational task, heralding a much-anticipated computing paradigm,” said Google’s AI Quantum team and John Martinis, a physicist at University of California at Santa Barbara.

The specific calculation has essentially no practical use, but is rather a demonstration of the potential of quantum systems - which instead of storing information in binary 1s or 0s, replace them with qubits, which can be both 0 and 1. It is, The Washington Post describes, “a technology that relies on the bizarre behavior of tiny particles to encode huge amounts of information”.

Speaking in an interview with MIT Technology Review, Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai called the development the “hello world” moment for quantum computing. He compared it to the Wright brothers’ first flight: “The first plane flew only for 12 seconds, and so there is no practical application of that. But it showed the possibility that a plane could fly.”

Pichai wrote in a blog post that Google started exploring the possibility of quantum computing in 2006. “With this breakthrough we are now one step closer to applying quantum computing to - for example - design more efficient batteries, create fertilizer using less energy, and figure out what molecules might make effective medicines,” he said.

Presidential hopeful and outspoken futurist Andrew Yang described it as a “huge deal”.

However, IBM responded to the claims, pouring cold water on Google’s purported “quantum supremacy”.

“We argue that an ideal simulation of the same task can be performed on a classical system in 2.5 days and with far greater fidelity,” contended Edwin Pednault, John Gunnels and Jay Gambetta in IBM’s research blog. “This is in fact a conservative, worst-case estimate, and we expect that with additional refinements the classical cost of the simulation can be further reduced.”

This reduces the unpractical 10,000 years estimate to a practical matter of days.

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“More fundamentally”, it is a false claim “because quantum computers will never reign ‘supreme’ over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths”, they said.

ScienceAlert says: “Despite the claims and counter-claims, the fact that several of the world’s leading quantum computing scientists are even having this debate suggests that the horizon of quantum supremacy, however messily and contentiously, has been reached.”

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