For anyone already worried about the influence of ‘big tech’ and especially the hold that Google has over the dissemination of information as a result of its search engine holding over 90% of the global market, rumours the company may well have now also achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ will send shivers down the spine. The rumours are based on a paper accidentally published on the NASA website and quickly taken down.
The paper claimed that Google has already succeeded in building a quantum computer capable of performing a calculation that couldn’t be achieved even with the world’s most powerful supercomputers – the definition of ‘quantum supremacy’.
A plain-text version of the paper subsequently posted anonymously on text storage site Pastebin, and has subsequently circulated on Twitter and been passed between scientists and computer engineers details Google’s creation of a quantum computer named Sycamore. Sycamore consisted of 54, of which 53 were functional quibits. Quibits are quantum ‘bits’, the 0 and 1 binary that all computing is based on. Quibits are maintained in a quantum state meaning that they can represent both an 0 and a 1 simultaneously. This exponentially increases computing power. Armed with its 53 functioning quibits, the paper detailed how Sycamore was able to perform in 200 seconds a serious of calculations that would have taken the most powerful non-quantum ‘supercomputer’ in the world 10,000 years to complete.
Google’s team of quantum researchers, headed up by University of California Santa Barbara physicist John Martinis, have been chasing the quantum supremacy benchmark for several years now. The result was a level of encryption practically impossible for a normal computer to achieve. The downside is there is no real practical application for the kind of calculation Sycamore has supposedly achieved.
However, if true, the event would still be a landmark in the history of computer science and a major step towards the advent of quantum computers able to perform useful calculations beyond current processing possibilities. That could open the doors to a level of knowledge unprecedented in science, such as mapping molecular structures. It would herald a computing paradigm. However, even if Google has reached quantum supremacy, practical application of quantum computing would still be some way away. The first bottleneck is finding a practical way to maintain many more quibits in a quantum state. The second is devising a method to correct the errors that inevitably creep into quantum calculations as a result of the instability of quibits.
IBM, another major actor in the race for quantum computing power does not believe that ‘quantum supremacy’ represents a particularly vital progression for the science. Dario Gil, IBM’s director of research wrote a note to Science News that read:
“Quantum computers are not ‘supreme’ against classical computers because of a laboratory experiment designed to essentially (and almost certainly exclusively) implement one very specific quantum sampling procedure with no practical applications.”
IBM is instead focused on ‘quantum advantage’ which the company defines as
“the point at which quantum applications deliver a significant, practical benefit beyond what classical computers alone are capable.”
However, regardless of the preferred benchmark for quantum computing’s practical development, the signs of progress being made suggest that further major breakthroughs are likely over the coming months and years. A world of stability functioning quantum computers could be expected to usher in a new era of human knowledge and control over the world around us – having learned how it operates on a molecular level.