Scientific breakthroughs don’t always go exactly to plan. On Friday, a draft research paper erroneously uploaded to Nasa’s website accidentally tipped the world off that Google had reached a quantum computing milestone: quantum supremacy.
It’s a goal that Google – and its competitors – had in their sights for years. In 2017, the firm predicted it’d reach quantum supremacy by the end of that year, but that deadline came and went without any breakthrough. In the intervening years IBM and Intel nipped at Google’s heels, testing quantum computers with ever increasing numbers of qubits – the units of information that are the reason that quantum computers are so potentially powerful.
Now it appears that Google has reached this particular milestone ahead of its competitors. The draft paper details how Google researchers used a quantum processor called Sycamore containing 53 functioning qubits to solve a random sampling problem that would have taken the world’s best supercomputers 10,000 years to work out. It took Sycamore just three minute and 20 seconds. Google, which partnered with Nasa for this project, did not respond to requests for comment.
But this breakthrough doesn’t mean that useful quantum computers are just around the corner. Not by a long shot. Instead, Google has just kicked open the door to the next era of quantum computing. And that’s where things start to get really interesting.
Quantum supremacy isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, says Simon Benjamin, professor of quantum technologies at the University of Oxford. It just means the moment that a quantum computer completes a task that conventional computers find impossible. In Google’s case, that meant telling the quantum computer to run a random set of instructions and then measure the results. The researchers then tried to get a supercomputer to predict what the quantum computer would produce, to make sure that the results really were only achievable by a quantum computer.
This task is – practically speaking – pointless. It’s good at sorting out quantum computers from their classical kin, but that’s it. And that means that, in…
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