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Google claims quantum computing breakthrough, IBM disagrees

Google says it has achieved ‘quantum supremacy’, as its Sycamore chip performed a calculation, which would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years, in 200 seconds.

It seems quite a remarkable upgrade, but this is the potential of quantum computing. This is not a step-change in technology, but a revolution on the horizon.

Here, Google is claiming its 53-qubit computer performed a task in 200 seconds, which would have taken Summit, a supercomputer IBM built for the Department of Energy, 10,000 years. That said, IBM is disputing the claim suggesting Google is massively exaggerating how long it would take Summit to complete the same task. After some tweaks, IBM has said it would take Summit 2.5 days.

Despite the potential for exaggeration, this is still a breakthrough for Google.

For the moment, it seems to be nothing more than a humble brag. Like concept cars at the Tokyo Motor Show, the purpose is to inflate the ego of Google and create a perception of market leadership in the quantum computing world. Although this is an area which could be critically important for the digital economy in years to come, the technology is years away from being commercially viable.

Nonetheless, this is an impressive feat performed by the team. It demonstrates the value of persisting with quantum computing and will have forward-thinking, innovative data scientists around the world dreaming up possible applications of such power.

At the most basic level, quantum computing is a new model of how to build a computer. The original concept is generally attributed to David Deutsch of Oxford University, who at a conference in 1984, pondered the possibility of designing a computer that was based exclusively on quantum rules. After publishing a paper a few months later, which you can see here if you are brave enough, the race to create a quantum computer began.

Today’s ‘classical’ computers store information in binary, where each bit is either on or off. Quantum computation use qubits, which can either be on or off, as well as being both on and off. This might sound incredibly complicated, but the best way to explain is to imagine a sphere.

In classical computing, a bit can be represented by the poles of the sphere, with zero representing the south pole and one representing the north, but in Quantum computing, any point of the sphere can be used to represent any point. This is achieved through a concept called superposition, which means ‘Qbits’ can be represented by a one or a zero, or both at the same time. For example, two qubits in a single superposition could represent four different scenarios.

Irrelevant as to whether you understand the theoretical science behind quantum computing, the important takeaway is that it will allow computers to store, analyse and transfer information much more efficiently. As you can see from the claim Google has made, completing a calculation in 200 seconds as opposed to 10,000 years is a considerable upgrade.

This achieved can be described as ‘quantum supremacy’, in that the chip has enabled a calculation which is realistically impossible on classical computing platforms. From IBM’s perspective, this is a step forward, but not ‘quantum supremacy’ if its computer can complete the same task in 2.5 days.

If this still sounds baffling and overly complex, this is because quantum computing is a field of technology only the tiniest of fractions of the worlds’ population understand. This is cutting-edge science.

“In many ways, the exercise of building a quantum computer is one long lesson in everything we don’t yet understand about the world around us,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“While the universe operates fundamentally at a quantum level, human beings don’t experience it that way. In fact, many principles of quantum mechanics directly contradict our surface level observations about nature. Yet the properties of quantum mechanics hold enormous potential for computing.”

What is worth taking away here is that understanding the science is not at all important once it has been figured out by people far more intelligent. All normal people need to understand is that this is a technology that will enable significant breakthroughs in the future.

This might sound patronising, but it is not supposed to. Your correspondent does not understand the mechanics of the combustion engine but does understand the journey between London and South Wales is significantly faster by car than on horse.

But what could these breakthroughs actually be?

On the security side, although quantum computing could crack the end-to-end encryption software which is considered unbreakable today, it could theoretically enable the creation of hack-proof replacements.

In artificial intelligence, machine learning is perfect area for quantum computing to be applied. The idea of machine learning is to collect data, analyse said data and provide incremental improvements to the algorithms which are being integrated into software. Analysing the data and applying the lessons learned takes time, which could be dramatically decreased with the introduction of quantum computing.

Looking at the pharmaceutical industry, in order to create new drugs, chemists need to understand the interactions between various molecules, proteins and chemicals to see if medicines will improve cure diseases or introduce dangerous side-effects. Due to the eye-watering number of combinations, this takes an extraordinary amount of time. Quantum computing could significantly reduce the time it takes to understand the interaction but could also be combined with analysing an individual’s genetic make-up to create personalised medicines.

These are three examples of how quantum computing could be applied, but there are dozens more. Weather forecasting could be improved, climate change models could be more accurate, or traffic could be better managed in city centres. As soon as the tools are available, innovators will come up with the ideas of how to best use the technology, probably coming up with solutions to challenges that do not exist today.

Leading this revolutionary approach to computing is incredibly important for any company which wants to dominate the cloud industry in the futuristic digital economy, which is perhaps the reason IBM felt it was necessary to dampen Google’s celebrations.

“Building quantum systems is a feat of science and engineering and benchmarking them is a formidable challenge,” IBM said on its own blog.

“Google’s experiment is an excellent demonstration of the progress in superconducting-based quantum computing, showing state-of-the-art gate fidelities on a 53-qubit device, but it should not be viewed as proof that quantum computers are “supreme” over classical computers.”

Google measured the success of its own quantum computer against IBM’s Summit, a supercomputer which is believed to be the most powerful in the world. By altering the way Summit approaches the same calculation Google used, IBM suggests Summit could come to the same conclusion in 2.5 days rather than 10,000 years.

Google still has the fastest machine, but according to IBM the speed increase does not deserve the title of ‘quantum supremacy’. It might not be practical to ask a computer to process a calculation for 2.5 days, but it is not impossible, therefore the milestone has not been reached.

What is worth noting is that a pinch of salt should be taken with both the Google and IBM claims. These are companies who are attempting to gain the edge and undermine a direct rival. There is probably some truth and exaggeration to both statements made.

And despite this being a remarkable breakthrough for Google, it is of course way too early to get exciting about the applications.

Not only is quantum computing still completely unaffordable for almost every application data scientists are dreaming about today, the calculation was very simple. Drug synthesis or traffic management where every traffic signal is attempting to understand the route of every car in a major city are much more complicated problems.

Scaling these technologies so they are affordable and feasible for commercial applications is still likely to be years away, but as Bill Gates famously stated: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

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