For the first time, a machine that runs on the mind-boggling physics of quantum mechanics reportedly has solved a problem that would stump the world’s top supercomputers – a breakthrough known as “quantum supremacy.”
If validated, the report by Google’s AI Quantum team and University of California at Santa Barbara physicist John Martinis constitutes a major leap for quantum computing, a technology that relies on the bizarre behavior of tiny particles to encode huge amounts of information. According to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Google’s Sycamore processor performed in less than 3 1/2 minutes a calculation that would take the most powerful classical computer on the planet 10,000 years to complete.
The achievement has been compared to the Wright brothers’ 12-second first flight at Kitty Hawk – an early, aspirational glimpse at a revolution to come. By providing exponentially greater calculation power than the machines we use today, quantum computers could one day transform the way we communicate ideas, conceal data and comprehend the universe.
The result is also a feather in the cap for both Google and the United States, because quantum technology is expected to confer huge economic and national security advantages to whomever can master it first.
The technology community has been abuzz about the breakthrough ever since a leaked version of the study was published on (and then removed from) a NASA website last month.
“For those of us who work on the theory,” said Ashley Montanaro, an expert in quantum algorithms at the University of Bristol, “it’s a point where it really seems that things that were only theoretical in the past are now becoming reality.”
Writing in the magazine Quanta, Caltech theoretical physicist John Preskill called the result “a remarkable achievement in experimental physics and a testament to the brisk pace of progress in quantum computing hardware.”
But the claim also has prompted skepticism from competitors. Researchers at IBM, which has been working on its own quantum machines, reported this week that a classical computer system would in fact take two and a half days to perform the calculation in Google’s report – and would make fewer mistakes in the process. (That paper has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)
In a blog post, the IBM scientists also questioned the use of the James Bond-esque term “quantum supremacy,” which seems to imply that classical computers are about to become obsolete.
Whoever turns out to be right, quantum supremacy is a largely symbolic achievement; the specific task assigned to the Google computer – checking outputs from a random number generator – has few practical applications.
In a statement Wednesday, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai called this a “hello world” milestone (the simple phrase is often the first program written by people learning to code), representing “a moment of possibility.”