Kylie Addison Sabra
October 2, 2019
The words, quantum supremacy, elicit visions of a hybrid rendition of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator wearing a Darth Vader mask–the stuff of nightmares. Headlines are screaming that Google claims to have achieved quantum supremacy. In fact, Google isn’t saying much of anything, refusing to comment altogether as of this posting. What set this runaway hype train in motion? A draft of a report appeared on NASA’s computers, only to be mysteriously removed. And this, just two days after IBM announced that it’s own 53 qubit computer would be made available to customers within the next month. Possibly, Google had not intended to go public with their test results?
At its simplest, quantum supremacy is that moment when a quantum computer beats the most powerful super computer. It appears that Google has achieved that, but again, on a rather simple plane.
The Quantum Supremacy Test
Two computers–one, Google’s 53 qubit quantum computer (known as Sycamore) and the other, our top super computer–were set the task of determining if the product of a random number generator was indeed entirely random. Sycamore returned its answer in roughly 200 seconds. Whereas, it would have taken our most powerful super computer in existence today over 10,000 years to solve. You could say it might even require a quantum computer to determine the accuracy of that statement.
Quantum vs. Classic Computing
Even those not in the tech industry have likely heard the term “bits”. Bits are the very foundation of classic computing as we know it to date. Bits, short for binary digit, have a binary value of either 0 or 1, represented by an electrical voltage or pulse. Quantum computing rests on an entirely different foundation. Qubits.
Qubits are highly temperamental, sub-atomic particles that behave in a what is frankly a scary manner. They also represent values of 0 or 1; but, as if in some indecisive alternate universe, they are capable of being both at the same time. Moreover, they can represent thousands of combinations of 0 and 1. They are sort of the hermaphrodites of the computer world, but more appropriately termed as having superposition. The state known as “entanglement” allows this ability to have more than one value at a time. Quantum computers process data in parallel, whereas classic computers have to process sequentially. That gives multi-tasking a whole new meaning.
Qubits have the ability to affect each other, even from great distances. Einstein referred to this state of entanglement as “spooky action at a distance” and wasn’t at all satisfied with the concept because it seemed incongruous to his Theory of Relativity. Nonetheless, this entanglement allows for the processing of information at lightning speed.
According to MIT Technology Review, Will Oliver, an MIT professor and quantum specialist, likened the computing milestone to the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in aviation.
Giles Martin, “Google Researchers Have Reportedly Achieved “Quantum Supremacy”. MIT Technology Review, 23 Sept. 2019.
The Good and the Not-So-Good News
Quantum supremacy, though, is a strong term and not even a popular one; mostly because of the negative context of the word supremacy. And quantum computing has no tangible, real-life use–at least not yet.
The ability of these computers to process complex data at such incredible speeds holds the promise for spectacular advances in molecular modeling, cryptography, weather forecasting and financial modeling. So, we can look forward to cures for diseases, accurate weather forecasting, improved actuarial risk tables and dependable stock performance insights.
However, in a world where data security is seeming more and more like a pipe dream, quantum computing will make it more so. Already, corporations across all arenas are working to develop quantum-crack-proof systems. It’s a race, and cryptographers, in particular, are worried, that the blockchain and cryptocurrency industries may be at risk before they have even fully left the gate.
But the race is on and IBM, Google, Microsoft, D-Wave, AT&T and Intel are at the forefront. There are many thoughts on when quantum computing will have the scalability to be of real-life use, but there is some consensus that within ten years quantum computing will weave its way through the fabric of our reality.