Google confirms 'quantum supremacy' breakthrough

The research paper is finally available to read in its entirety, but rivals still say hold on a qubit

Photo: MIT Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO next to company's quantum processor that has achieved the "quantum supremacy."

Yesterday Google finally confirmed it had achieved a breakthrough in computer research, by solving a complex problem in minutes with its quantum computer that would take today’s most powerful supercomputer thousands of years to crack.

The announcement comes exactly one month after the news initially leaked, when Google’s paper was accidentally published early. Now, however, it’s official, meaning the full details of the research are public, and the broader scientific community can fully scrutinize what Google says it’s achieved.

What Google claims is that its 54-qubit Sycamore processor was able to perform a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken 10,000 years for a Summit supercomputer - the most powerful in the world today to solve it. That would mean the calculation, which involved generated random numbers, is essentially impossible on a traditional, non-quantum computer.

Computer scientists have for decades sought to harness the behavior of sub-atomic particles that can simultaneously exist in different states - in contrast to the “real” world that people perceive around them. So, whereas traditional computing relies on bits, or ones and zeros, quantum computing uses quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both one and zero at the same time.

This property, called superposition, multiplies exponentially as qubits become entangled with each other. The more qubits that can be strung together, the vastly more powerful a quantum computer becomes. Yet, there’s a catch: Quantum researchers need to cool the qubits to close to absolute zero to limit vibration - or “noise” - that causes errors to creep into their calculations. It’s in this extremely challenging task that the research team at Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, has made significant progress.

“This dramatic increase in speed compared to all known classical algorithms is an experimental realisation of quantum supremacy for this specific computational task, heralding a much-anticipated computing paradigm,” wrote the research team, led by Google AI’s Frank Arute.

Google's CEO Sundar Pichai thus compared the achievement to building the first rocket to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and touch the edge of space, an advance that brought interplanetary travel into the realm of the possible.

"For those of us working in science and technology, it's the 'hello world' moment we've been waiting for - the most meaningful milestone to date in the quest to date to make quantum computing a reality," Pichai wrote in a blog.

Unsurprisingly, however, IBM, the company that operates the Summit supercomputer that Google claims to have beaten, and a key quantum computer competitor, is disputing Google’s claims. In a blog post published pre-emptively on Monday, the company said that the task Google managed to solve could be performed on a classical system in just 2.5 days, rather than the 10,000 years that Google is claiming. IBM also insists that Google “failed to fully account for plentiful disk storage” when estimating how long its traditional supercomputer would take to perform the calculation.

The company also noted that Google risked misleading the public by implying the new-style computers would replace existing ones.

"Quantum computers will never reign 'supreme' over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths," Dario Gil, director of research at IBM, wrote in a blog post.

Many in the research community, however, welcomed the news, with scientists quoted by The New York Times likening Google’s breakthrough to the Wright brothers’ first plane flight in 1903. 

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