Google and China fight over ‘quantum supremacy’

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When the Recently Late Daredevil Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier in 1947, observers knew from the thunderous boom that echoed over the Mojave Desert, marking the feat.

Despite all its historical significance, no magnificent soundstage accompanies the making of “quantum supremacy. No roar pierces people’s ears to confirm the moment quantum computer performs a specially designed computation so quickly that it leaves a traditional computer in the dust desperately. Claims of quantum supremacy are more difficult to analyze.

This is because today’s quantum computers are still very immature and the limits of classical computing are not exactly well understood, even by leading theorists in the field. The demonstrations of so-called supremacy therefore remain a delicate science. (Look no further than IBM disputing google rival famous experience Last year.)

It is therefore with caution that we must consider last week quantum supremacy claims by a team of researchers from the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei. The group said it produced in 200 seconds a calculation that would take 2.5 billion years for an ordinary computer to reproduce – an extremely bold claim. (You can read the article, published in the newspaper Science December 3 here.)

Already, there are big caveats. The Chinese team’s equipment cannot be programmed to do anything else, for example. (Programmability is generally seen as a tabletop issue for a computer.) While the quantum computer used in Google’s experiment can be adapted for other purposes, the Chinese platform is rigid and inflexible. It’s like the difference between building a stick-in-the-ground sundial and a comparatively more complex accounting tool like an abacus, as a quantum research manager at a large bank in Wall told me. Street. Generally speaking, the abacus is more impressive, or at least more potentially useful.

Then there’s the question of whether the Chinese team’s central claim – that its quantum computer can dramatically outperform an ordinary computer by a factor of $ 100 trillion – will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Other teams are said to be already working to refute this claim; it is said that the quantum team at Google, not to be outdone, is working to refute the claim, or at least to push it back considerably. John Martinis, a quantum leader who left Google earlier this year, openly shared his doubts on the recent result at an Australian conference yesterday. (Google did not immediately respond to Fortune request for comment.)

Despite these reservations, the experience deserves to be celebrated. “This is a first-rate victory for China in the field of quantum computing,” said Greg Kuperberg, a mathematician at the University of California at Davis, specializing in quantum theory. “They are working hard to catch up with the West in scientific research in general, which is a difficult but valuable goal,” he says. (Even though the work “fuels political insecurities in Washington,” he adds.)

The experiment also represents a major point of proof for photonics, a material approach based on light beams for building quantum computers that has received little time compared to other leading approaches, such as superconducting qubits (continued by IBM, Google, Rigetti) and ion traps (Honeywell, IonQ). Each approach has unique advantages and disadvantages.

It will be ironic, of course, if Google pushes back the result of the Chinese team, in the same way IBM countered his. Again, it’s fair how does science work. “Either they will succeed, or the demand will be stronger”, Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist who runs a popular, albeit specialized, industry blog, Google polls say.

Whether or not this result is true, experiments in quantum supremacy are bound to unfold in spurts for the foreseeable future. It’s a race between the cutting edge of quantum computing and advances in traditional computational methods, each trying to get ahead of the other.

It might not be a sonic boom, but it’s the pop of a starting gun.

Robert hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com



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