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The dawn of a new age: Google cracks quantum supremacy

By Sara Barker
Thu 24 Oct 2019
FYI, this story is more than a year old

This is the dawn of a new age in quantum computing - it took just 200 seconds to perform a calculation that even the world’s fastest classical computer would still take 10,000 years to figure out.

After 13 years of work, Google looks to have claimed the lead in the race to quantum computing this week, as it officially announced that its quantum computer cracked a target computation in a mere 200 seconds.

It’s the ‘eureka’ moment technologists and scientists have been yearning for.

The quantum computer, nicknamed ‘Sycamore’, is a huge feat of technology and engineering that comprises fast high-fidelity quantum logic gates and a 54-qubit processor to boot.

It’s superior to classical computers (the types of computers that run most devices like smartphones and personal computers) in almost every way – and it’s a major breakthrough in quantum computing.

That breakthrough is called ‘quantum supremacy’, which essentially means that a quantum computer can crack a problem that would stump most classical computers.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says Sycamore’s feat is a major milestone in Google’s efforts to put quantum mechanics principles into solving computational problems.

He explains that the entire task of building a quantum computer is like figuring out everything people don’t understand about the world around them.

“While the universe operates fundamentally at a quantum level, human beings don’t experience it that way. In fact, many principles of quantum mechanics directly contradict our surface level observations about nature. Yet the properties of quantum mechanics hold enormous potential for computing,” he explains in a blog.

Generally a classical computer stores ‘bits’ as 0 or 1. A quantum bit (qubit) can be both at the same time.

Add a bit of mathematics, and, “With 333 qubits there are 2^333, or 1.7x10^100—a Googol—computational states you can put in superposition, allowing a quantum computer to simultaneously explore a rich space of many possible solutions to a problem,” Pichai computes.

He adds that the test computation took 200 seconds only because Google was controlling the qubits, but it still outperformed a classical computer with few enough errors and at a large enough scale.

Google AI Quantum scientists Martinis and Sergio Boixo say that Sycamore is a fully programmable quantum computer. Now Google has the first widely useful algorithm for computer science applications – certifiable quantum randomness.

“Testing of this algorithm is ongoing, and in the coming months we plan to implement it in a prototype that can provide certifiable random numbers.”

But what can the world use quantum computing for? The universe operates at a quantum and molecular level. This kind of technology now allows people to understand and simulate that level.

While it’s still a long way off, Pinchar sees a world in which people can design batteries that are more efficient, and figure out how to harness molecules for medicines.

“They could also help improve existing advanced technologies like machine learning,” adds Google AI Quantum Team engineering director Hartmut Neven.

“In many ways quantum brings computing full circle, giving us another way to speak the language of the universe and understand the world and humanity not just in 1s and 0s but in all of its states: beautiful, complex, and with limitless possibility,” Pinchar concludes.

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