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Google is pushing civilization closer to quantum computing, a development which will change computing and most likely, the world. A Google-developed quantum computer, called Sycamore, solved a problem in seconds that would take a “normal” supercomputer 10,000 years.
Is the age of quantum computing upon us? Has Google achieved “quantum supremacy?” And what does quantum computing mean for you?
What Is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing fundamentally alters how computers process data, using quantum physics.
A regular semiconductor-based processor (like the one in your laptop or smartphone) uses “bits” of information. The bits exist as a 1 or 0, somewhat like a switch that is on or off. The bits can only exist as a 1 or 0 on traditional hardware.
Quantum computers use quantum bits, known as “qubits.” A qubit can exist as both 1 and 0 simultaneously. The ability for a qubit to hold its state as a 1 and 0 is a central tenet of quantum computing and is known as superposition.
Superposition lets multiple calculations take place at the same time. But to do that, the qubits must be synchronized using a quantum effect known as entanglement.
Still unsure? Here’s quantum computing explained in 60 seconds.
What Is Quantum Supremacy?
Although it sounds like the name of an action-packed James Bond film, quantum supremacy is far more ground-breaking. Quantum supremacy is the name given to the moment when a quantum computer completes a calculation faster than a classical computer.
Google claims their Sycamore quantum processor has achieved quantum supremacy for the first time. The team of researchers, led by John Martinis, an experimental physicist at the University of California, set the quantum processor a random sampling task. The sampling task produces a set of numbers with truly random distribution.
“It is likely that the classical simulation time, currently estimated at 10,000 years, will be reduced by improved classical hardware and algorithms,” said Brooks Foxen, a graduate student researcher in Martinis’ lab. “But since we are currently 1.5 trillion times faster, we feel comfortable laying claim to this achievement.”
Has Google Achieved Quantum Supremacy?
The paper detailing the quantum supremacy experiments leaked on the NASA website. Although it was taken offline quickly, it caught the eye of a lot of people due to its bold claims. The paper has since published formally in the scientific journal, Nature.
However, IBM is unconvinced.
Days before the formal release of the Google quantum supremacy paper, IBM issued a paper claiming that the same performance gains can also work on classical hardware, given time to make extensions to a supercomputer. So, while Google argues that it has achieved quantum supremacy, IBM is arguing that it hasn’t because if, given time, it could theoretically extend their Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratories to complete the same task in “approximately two and half days.”
IBM’s claims are not without basis, although not echoed throughout the scientific and computing community.
“The Google paper is reporting a substantial advance. We see wonderful fabrication, wonderful diagnostics, real care towards all the details that make this an advance,” says Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics and board member of the Quantum Technology Strategic Advisory Board.
“Nevertheless, there are a number of assumptions in the paper. Like Google, IBM have also looked very carefully at the way that the supercomputing classical simulations could be done differently to check the idea of ‘computing supremacy’. Until the quantum community have had a chance to road test the data from the experiment using the Sycamore chip, how far Google have achieved this, is still an open question. But science progresses by challenging assumptions and I would expect to see more of this.”
Until IBM can provide evidence that the Summit supercomputer can complete the same test within a reasonable time frame, Google has achieved quantum supremacy.
What Does Quantum Supremacy Mean for You?
In the short term, quantum supremacy and quantum computing mean little to regular computer users. Quantum computing is an iterative process. Google’s development is an exciting and intriguing step forward. But, just as modern computing took time, so will quantum computing.
The second thing to consider is that a quantum computer requires a phenomenal amount of cooling. A quantum computer requires liquid nitrogen to operate. There is no way to replicate the amount of cooling required to bring quantum computing to a smartphone or laptop. The technology doesn’t exist.
That point when your non-scientific parent(s) asks you to explain Google’s Quantum Supremacy and if the robots are taking over yet. #QuantumSupermacy
— Shyam D. (@PeakSquirrel) October 24, 2019
Concerning the first point, it is a long-term goal. The first computers were the size of an entire room and took a whole team of scientists to run and program. Quantum computing is at the same stage.
Others have doubts that quantum computing will ever replace classical semiconductor-based computing. Moore’s Law dictates that the number of transistors in a processor will double every two years, increasing computing power along with it. (It doesn’t dictate that the processing power will increase, which is a misconception of the law.)
The prediction proved correct over four decades, although Gordon Moore himself believes progress will reach saturation “in the next decade or so.”
Even with the eventual and probable slowdown of semiconductor-based processors, processing power will continue to increase. Brian Krzanich, the former CEO of Intel, confirmed that Intel’s processor scaling is “closer to two and a half years than two,” but that the company would continue to pursue processor power advancements.
Quantum computing is just one alternative to classic semiconductor processing when Moore’s Law ends.
What Is Neven’s Law?
Neven’s Law dictates how quickly quantum processors are improving and is named after Hartmut Neven, director of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab at Google.
Neven’s Law states that quantum processing power will grow with a double exponential rate—that’s insanely fast. For example, processing power grows by a factor of 2^2^1 (4), then 2^2^2 (16), then 2^2^3 (256), then 2^2^4 (65,536), and so on. Using this format, you can see how the rate of processing will rapidly massively increase.
Quantum Supremacy Is Here
Google’s quantum supremacy development is ground-breaking. Despite IBM’s efforts to undermine the quantum development, Google is pushing quantum computing forward. If scientists can find fault with Google’s claims, then the process and development will become stronger for it.
« Quantum computer took just 200 seconds to perform a calculation that would have taken the world's top supercomputer 10,000 years to crack »…Google proclaims quantum supermacy, let’s say bye bye to encryption…
— pathus (@pathus90) October 25, 2019
Quantum computing is a difficult area of computing and science for many to process. The ideas are equal parts abstract and enormous, the outcomes difficult to process, and impact unknown.
That said, there are some areas that quantum computing will impact that are well understood. Quantum computers could spell the end of cryptography as we know it. And that’s an impact that affects everyone.
Image Credit: Erik Lucero/Google Quantum Supremacy