Google claims quantum computing breakthrough

October 24, 2019 09:46
Google expects quantum computing to fuel advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, materials science, and chemistry. Photo: Reuters

Google said on Wednesday that it has achieved a breakthrough in computing research by using a quantum computer to solve in minutes a complex problem that would take today’s most powerful supercomputer thousands of years to crack, Reuters reports.

Google researchers expect that quantum computers, within a few years, will fuel advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, materials science, and chemistry.

“We’re hoping that when people start using this and looking at performance stability and cloud interface, they’ll get really excited about what we have to offer at Google,” John Martinis, the company’s chief scientist for quantum hardware, was quoted as saying.

The breakthrough was described in a paper published in science journal Nature. It followed weeks of controversy since a draft leaked over whether Google's claim of "quantum supremacy" was valid.

IBM said a supercomputer employing a different set-up could solve the same challenge in under three days, while chipmaker Intel said “quantum practicality” remained years away.

Google defended its position, but did not dispute rivals’ contentions. It has manufactured a handful of chips with 54 ‘qubits’, vastly more powerful than the standard 64-bit chip in many consumer devices. However, for the technology to be useful to customers it would need to make chips with thousands of qubits.

Martinis said Google sees “a pathway” to a computer with 1,000 qubits and expressed confidence that it had a reliable process to make its new chip, dubbed Sycamore.

For decades, computer scientists have sought to harness quantum physics, laws governing the behavior of particles that are smaller than atoms and can simultaneously exist in different states.

Quantum bits, or qubits, can be set to one and zero at the same time, unlike today’s computer bits that are either ones or zeros. This superposition property multiplies exponentially as qubits become entangled with each other, meaning the more qubits connected, the vastly more powerful a quantum computer becomes.

But there is a catch: Quantum researchers need to cool qubits to about absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius or -460 degrees Fahrenheit) to limit vibration - or “noise” - that causes errors in calculations. It is in this challenging task that Google, which has designed much of its own electronics and used liquid helium for cooling, has made significant progress.

CEO Sundar Pichai compared the achievement to building the first rocket to leave 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 make quantum computing a reality," Pichai wrote in a blog.

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