- Google scientists have claimed a major breakthrough in superfast computing after running an experiment which appears to demonstrate just how much faster quantum computers would be compared to classical ones.
- Quantum computing is complicated, but based on the idea that computers can incorporate aspects of quantum theory. In theory, computational tasks can be carried out exponentially faster by quantum computers than by classical computers. This is known as quantum supremacy.
- Google’s scientists tested a 54-qubit (quantum bit) processor named Sycamore, and it performed a target computation in 200 seconds. To put this into perspective, the scientists estimate it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output.
- IBM, which is also working on quantum computing research, cast doubt on Google’s findings and said on Monday that quantum supremacy “has not been met.”
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Google scientists say they’ve made a breakthrough in one of the most cutting-edge areas of computing, publishing a paper that demonstrates how much faster quantum computers could be versus traditional computers.
According to a paper published in Nature, an experimental quantum processor developed by the scientists took seconds to carry out computation which they claim the world’s fastest supercomputer would need 10,000 years to carry out. This is known as quantum supremacy, and would mark a major breakthrough in the experimental field.
Quantum computing is complex and very much at the research stage. It involves computing technology that is based on the principles of quantum theory.
Instead of bits, which today’s computers use to process information, quantum computers use quantum bits, or ‘qubits.’ Where classical computers are constrained by how fast they can switch between outputting zeros and outputting ones, quantum computers would face no such constraints, because qubits can theoretically exist in both states simultaneously.
The upshot is that quantum computers would be able to carry out particular tasks exponentially faster than a standard computer — millions of times faster. Google says that this is what it’s demonstrated.
John Martinis and Sergio Boixo, two senior scientists at Google AI Quantum, wrote on Wednesday that they were motivated to run the experiment to find out if quantum computing “will ever do something useful” and whether it’s “worth investing in.”
Elaborating on their motivations, they wrote: “For such large-scale endeavors, it is good engineering practice to formulate decisive short-term goals that demonstrate whether the designs are going in the right direction. So, we devised an experiment as an important milestone to help answer these questions.”
The scientists’ experiment involved building a 54-qubit (quantum bit) processor named Sycamore, made up of fast, high-fidelity quantum logic gates.
They then tested Sycamore’s computing ability, testing how long it would take to perform a single target calculation. Setting the bar for success high, the scientists agreed on a “sensitive computational benchmark that fails if just a single component of the computer is not good enough.”
According to the scientists, Sycamore performed the target calculation in 200 seconds. They claimed that, according to their measurements, it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output.
One expert says that Google’s claims are “compelling.”
Peter Knight, a senior physicist at Imperial College London, told the BBC’s Today Programme on Wednesday that Google’s experiment was “a real breakthrough,” and agreed that this was “the real deal” in quantum computing research.
Though Knight noted similar research had been conducted by IBM, he “always felt it was likely the [Google] group would be there first.” A draft paper on the same Google experiment reportedly appeared on the NASA website in August before being swiftly taken down.
As quantum computing remains very much in its infancy, it’s difficult to imagine how and in what ways it might impact human society, though no-one disputes its potential to impact just about everything. Knight briefly touched on one area it may affect: data security. Though he said the potential threat posed by quantum computing to processes such as encryption is still “distant,” the threat “is still there.”
For its part, IBM disputes Google’s putative breakthrough. In a blog post on Monday, they claimed “the goal [of quantum supremacy] has not been met.”