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Google's Quantum Supremacy Explained

November 11, 2019

 

‘Hello quantum world!’ is what Google’s paper read when it published a claim on 23rd October that it had achieved Quantum Supremacy. What exactly is this quantum and why does it matter? We look to unclutter the jargon and tell you why this is big deal.

 

What is Quantum Computing and Quantum Supremacy?

A traditional computer with a traditional silicon chip, like the one you might be using to this read this right now, stores information in the form of 0s or 1s. That is, they’re binary. Organized by the millions and trillions, these binary digits are used to store data and make the computer do actions that you want. But, they’re just an ‘on’ or ‘off’ state. Flip a light switch 30 million times in one second and you might be able to make it play Minecraft.

 

A quantum computer stores information in ‘qubits’. It can store information not just as 0s or 1s but also as a superposition of 0 and 1. A single qubit exists in four states at once. Pair it with another qubit, and they now exist in eight states. So, with each additional qubit, the capacity increases exponentially. Additionally, thanks to a concept called quantum entanglement, the value of qubit can be tied or ‘entangled’ to those around it. Qubit chips rely on ions, photons and electrons interacting in a supercooled, superconducting state. Thus, making a stable quantum computer is extremely tough and these qubit chips can only be placed in special labs.

 

We’ve known about quantum computing since a while now. They can solve complex problems faster -we’ve known this since the 1980s. What all the tech firms were racing to do was to get to ‘Quantum Supremacy’. It is the feat when a quantum computer outperforms the best conventional supercomputer for the first time. Google seems to have achieved that.

 

 

What did Google do?

Google’s quantum computer, called Sycamore, solved a random – number problem in just 200 seconds. A problem, that Google says, would take the best supercomputer in the world right now about 10,000 years, rendering it virtually impossible to be done on a traditional silicon chip-based computer.

 

What’s more amazing is the way Google achieved this. It used a 54 qubits quantum computer to achieve this feat. When a standard binary computer runs a calculation, it gives you one definite answer. Either 0 or 1, on or off. Or rather, a string of 0s and 1s. A quantum computer, however, gives you all the possible answers at once. It can be 0 or 1 or a combination of both. The quantum computer solves that problem by running the calculation millions of times simultaneously, looking for a so-called probability distribution, which analyzes all the answers and ultimately discerns the right one.

 

 

Even when you’ve assembled a complex setup of circuits placed in a supercool superconducting state, the problem is that the results and operations of the chips need to be shown on a standard silicon computer. Doing this with a 54-qubit computer put the researchers at Google into unknown territories. So much so that when they studied as to why the experimental data was deviating from the predicted data, it took them by surprise that the reason was that they hit quantum supremacy. Talk about eureka moments.

 

IBM, that operates the supercomputer that Google claims to have beaten, unsurprisingly disputed Google’s claims. In a blog posted published on it’s website, it took a different tone to the definition of Quantum Supremacy and said that the same task could be performed in 2.5 days, rather than 10,000 years as Google claimed.

 

What does it mean?

Google’s 54 qubit supercomputer can have applications in cryptography, but its achievement is more symbolic. Many researchers have linked it to Wright Brothers first flight in 1903. Even though it was a short flight and didn’t gain much altitude, within 100 years we were flying transatlantic on supersonic jets. We’re probably very far away from having our own quantum laptops or even quantum supercomputers in industries, but Google’s findings have provided the bedrock for any such quantum computers to exist in the future in the first place.

 

 

There is no denying that this is a hinge-point in technology history. The supremacy of quantum computing has always existed, albeit in research papers. Google has just showed the world that it has now arrived in the real world too.

 

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

 

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About the Author

Akshat Jain is a student of Bachelors in Technology from Manipal University Jaipur. Originally from Delhi, he is an avid debater and has participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences all over the country. A West Wing fan, he likes reading and decoding social issues, and public policy. Previously, he has worked with the healthcare venture PeeSafe, in addition to The Kirat Youth Foundation, and Kairo Guard.

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