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Google achieves quantum supremacy, IBM cries foul

Image via Google
Image via Google
In a blog post published today, Google claims that its 54-qubit quantum computer Sycamore calculated a complex problem in 200 seconds. The company also estimates the same problem would take the world's fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. However, IBM (who owns the world's fastest supercomputer) says the estimate should be closer to 2.5 days. Either way, Google's achievement is a big milestone for quantum computing.

The age of quantum computing may be upon us. In a blog post published today, Google claims that their quantum computer, a 54-cubit processor named “Sycamore,” completed in 200 seconds a complex computation the company claims would take the fastest supercomputer 10,000 years. 

For those not in the know, here’s a quick (and shallow) primer on quantum computing. Essentially, a quantum computer can calculate problems orders of magnitude faster than classical computers. While classical computers consist of binary switches that can only have a value of “1” or “0” at a given time, a quantum computer uses “qubits,” which can hold a value of “1” and “0” in superposition (at the same time). This is achieved through some quantum mechanical trickery. Considering Sycamore is a 54-cubit computer, it is (in theory) substantially faster than even the most powerful supercomputer on Earth.

That supercomputer belongs to one of Google’s quantum computing rivals, IBM. The findings posted by Google were leaked earlier this year, and IBM claims the findings are highly exaggerated. While IBM hasn’t decried the 200 seconds calculation time claimed by the Sycamore team, the company has stated that the problem in question wouldn’t take a supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. Rather, says IBM, the time frame is closer to 2.5 days. While Sycamore is still quite a bit faster at this benchmark than a supercomputer, it does discredit Google’s claim of “quantum supremacy.” (It should be noted that IBM recently unveiled a 53-qubit quantum computer.

“Quantum supremacy” is an ill-defined term reserved for the event when a quantum computer solves (in a reasonable timeframe) a problem deemed nearly impossible for classical computers. To that end, whether or not shaving 60 hours off a complex problem counts as quantum supremacy is debatable. Google has still achieved a huge milestone with this computation, and the future looks bright for quantum computing, though there are still several summits left to climb.

Look out for our review of the first quantum processor-powered laptop in 2050.

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Sam Medley, 2019-10-23 (Update: 2019-10-23)