Google quantum computer leaves old-school supercomputers in the dust

The era of practical quantum computers has begun — at least on one speed test showing «quantum supremacy.»

A Google quantum computer has far outpaced ordinary computing technology, an achievement called quantum supremacy that’s an important milestone for a revolutionary way of processing data. Google disclosed the results in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The achievement came after more than a decade of work at Google, including the use of its own quantum computing chip, called Sycamore.

«Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output,» Google researchers said in a blog post about the work.

The achievement, which leaked into the limelight in September with a premature paper publication, doesn’t mean the beginning of the end for classical computers, at least in the view of today’s quantum computing experts. Quantum computers are expected to be good at some particular chores — optimizing investment portfolios and developing new drugs at the molecular level, for example — but not most of what we do today on computers.

Google’s result does offer evidence, though, that quantum computers could break out of research labs and head toward mainstream computing.

Quantum computing researcher Scott Aaronson likened the step to landing on the moon in terms of momentousness. And in a tweet Wednesday, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai called it a «big breakthrough.»

A vast industry is devoted to improving classical computers, but a small number of expensive labs at companies such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Honeywell, Rigetti Computing and IBM are pursuing general-purpose quantum computers, too. They’re finicky devices, running in an environment chilled to just a hair’s breadth above absolute zero to minimize the likelihood they’ll be perturbed. Don’t expect to find a quantum computer on your desk.

Google’s speed test has applications to computing work like artificial intelligence, materials science and random number generation, the paper said.

However, physicist Jim Preskill, who came up with the term «quantum supremacy» in 2012, dashed some cold water on that idea. Google’s chosen test was good for showing quantum computing speed but «not otherwise a problem of much practical interest,» Preskill said in October after the paper’s premature release.

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