Google researchers report major breakthrough in quantum computing

Google researchers report major breakthrough in quantum computing
Innovation

Google has announced an unprecedented breakthrough in quantum computing, with a quantum processor performing a complex calculation in a fraction of the time they say it would have taken the world’s most powerful conventional supercomputers, according to Reuters

Google’s 54-qubit Sycamore processor performed the calculation in 200 seconds, compared to the 10,000 years they say it would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputers. This would mean it would be effectively impossible for conventional computers to perform. Solving such a calculation with a quantum computer defines ‘quantum supremacy,’ a theoretical goal long sought-after by researchers.

Quantum computing uses the unique properties of quantum particles to enhance computing power. Instead of using a binary system of 1s and 0s, quantum computing relies on the undefined position of unobserved particles, to produce qubits, which are essentially the quantum version of a binary bit. They can act simultaneously as both a binary one and zero. The added complexity of this “superposition” state, along with the property of “quantum entanglement” in which particles affect the state of separate particles elsewhere, allows for much more powerful computing. 

In practice, quantum computing entails serious challenges. To avoid vibrations that can produce errors, qubits must be kept at temperatures just slightly above absolute zero. 

Google’s Sycamore processor uses 54 qubits in organized into a grid. The researchers claimed that the world’s most powerful supercomputer, called Summit and developed by IBM, would have taken 10,000 years to perform the calculation, which involved discerning a pattern in vast sets of random numbers, which took just over three minutes for Sycamore. 

However, IBM researchers have contested that claim, saying Summit would have solved the problem in just two and a half days, and with greater accuracy than Sycamore. They said Google researchers hadn’t accounted for the addition of sufficient disk storage, and challenged their claim to “quantum supremacy.”

If it becomes practical and widely available, quantum computing could eventually render conventional computers obsolete. Google’s researchers say it will ultimately drive advances in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and a range of other scientific fields.

Other researchers have praised the breakthrough, while emphasizing that there’s a long road ahead before quantum computing becomes practical and truly eclipses conventional computing. 

Google’s research was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, a month after the news first leaked. In commentary included in the journal, MIT’s William Oliver compared the breakthrough to the first flight by the Wright brothers. 

“Their aeroplane, the Wright Flyer, wasn’t the first airborne vehicle to fly, and it didn’t solve any pressing transport problem.  Instead, the event is remembered for having shown a new operational regime — the self-propelled flight of an aircraft that was heavier than air. It is what the event represented, rather than what it practically accomplished, that was paramount.”

Photo by D-Wave Systems, Inc. [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

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