A Google quantum computer has far outpaced ordinary computing technology, an achievement called quantum supremacy that’s an important milestone for a revolutionary way of processing data. Google disclosed the results in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The achievement came after more than a decade of work at Google, including the use of its own quantum computing chip, called Sycamore.
“Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output,” Google researchers said in a blog post about the work.
The news, which leaked into the limelight in September with a premature paper publication, offers evidence that quantum computers could break out of research labs and head toward mainstream computing. They could perform important work like creating new materials, designing new drugs at the molecular level, optimizing financial investments and speeding up delivery of packages. And the quantum computing achievement comes as progress with classical computers, as measured by the speed of general-purpose processors and charted by Moore’s Law, has sputtered.
Google’s Sputnik moment
Google got to pick its speed test, but Hartmut Neven, one of the researchers, dismissed criticisms that the result is only a narrow victory.
“Sputnik didn’t do much either. It circled the Earth. Yet it was the start of the space age,” Neven said at a press conference. He spoke at Google’s quantum computing lab near Santa Barbara, California, next to the site of an actual Space Race milestone — the development of the Apollo missions’ lunar rover.
But it’s not the beginning of the end for classical computers, at least in the view of today’s quantum computing experts. Quantum computers are finicky, exotic and have to run in an extremely controlled environment, and they’re not likely to replace most of what we do today on classical computers.
Instead, quantum computers will function as accelerators for classical machines, useful enough to be essential. “It will be a must-have a resource at some point,” Neven said.
Quantum computing researcher Scott Aaronson likened the step to landing on the moon in terms of momentousness. And in a tweet Wednesday, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai called it a “big breakthrough.” Exemplifying how hard the work is, though, the quantum supremacy paper has a whopping 77 authors.
A vast industry is devoted to improving classical computers, but a small number of expensive labs at companies such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Honeywell, Rigetti Computing and IBM are pursuing general-purpose quantum computers, too. They’re finicky devices, running in an environment chilled to just a hair’s breadth above absolute zero to minimize the likelihood they’ll be perturbed. Don’t expect to find a quantum computer on your desk.
Google’s speed test has applications to computing work like artificial intelligence, materials science and random number generation, the paper said.
And already, Google’s quantum computing researchers are talking to Google security team members about how the random number technology could be used to generate encryption keys, said Dave Bacon, leader of the quantum computing software effort.
Google’s first customers — the US Department of Energy and automakers Daimler and Volkswagen — will be able to use the machine in 2020, Google said. As with IBM’s quantum computing effort, it’ll be available as a cloud computing service over the internet.
However, physicist Jim Preskill, who came up with the term “quantum supremacy” in 2012, dashed some cold water on that idea. Google’s chosen test is good for showing quantum computing speed but “not otherwise a problem of much practical interest,” Preskill said in October after the paper’s premature release.