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Google quantum computer leaves old-school supercomputers in the dust

• CNET.com

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 news, which leaked into the limelight in September with a premature paper publication, offers evidence that quantum computers could break out of research labs and head toward mainstream computing. They could perform important work like creating new materials, designing new drugs at the molecular level, optimizing financial investments and speeding up delivery of packages. And the quantum computing achievement comes as progress with classical computers, as measured by the speed of general-purpose processors and charted by Moore's Law, has sputtered.

But it's not the beginning of the end for classical computers, at least in the view of today's quantum computing experts. Quantum computers are finicky, exotic and have to run in an extremely controlled environment, and they're not likely to replace most of what we do today on classical computers.

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.

Quantum vs. classical computers

Nearly every digital device so far, from ENIAC in 1945 to Apple's iPhone 11 in 2019, is a classical computer. Their electronics rely on logic circuits to do things like add two numbers and on memory cells to store the results.

Google quantum computer

Google quantum computer looks nothing like a conventional machine. When running, all this complexity is hidden away and refrigerated to near absolute zero.

Google

Quantum computers are entirely different, reliant instead on the mind-bending rules of physics that govern ultrasmall objects like atoms.