It is the holy grail of computing and Google claims to have cracked it.

Earlier this week, scientists revealed that they have achieved a near-mythical state of computing in which a new generation of machines vastly outperforms the world’s fastest supercomputer, known as “quantum supremacy.”

A team of experts working on Google’s Sycamore machine said their quantum system had executed a calculation in 200 seconds which would have taken a classic computer 10,000 years to complete.

A rival team at IBM has already expressed skepticism about their claim.

But if verified and harnessed, the Google device could make even the world’s most powerful supercomputers – capable of performing thousands of trillions of calculations per second – look like an early 2000s flip-phone.

“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,” Sundar Pichai, the chief executive officer of Google, wrote in a  blog post, hailing the breakthrough.

While Google’s announcement has drawn skepticism, it still represents a significant development in the high-tech race between the United States and China.

Milestone

But the CNN television network warned:

“Just as the Soviet Union was the first to put both a satellite and a human being into orbit, before going on to lose the space race, China may be poised to outstrip any American achievements in a specific field of quantum technology – communication.

“Beijing’s gains in this area – which could make its communications unhackable – may leave US spies in the dark just as the US-China rivalry is heating up, a prospect that has led to great alarm in Washington.

Still, Joe Fitzsimons, the chief executive officer of Horizon Quantum Computing, stressed that this was an exciting moment and “a hugely important milestone.”

“This is a hugely important milestone for the field,” he told CNN. “The Google result shows that for the first time there is a quantum processor that can do something that a conventional computer cannot do, or at least that a conventional computer cannot do without enormous effort.”

Regular computers, even the fastest, function in binary fashion: they carry out tasks using tiny fragments of data known as bits that are only ever either 1 or 0.

But fragments of data on a quantum computer, known as qubits, can be both 1 and 0 at the same time.

This property, known as superposition, means a quantum computer, made up of several qubits, can crunch an enormous number of potential outcomes simultaneously.

The computer harnesses some of the most mind-boggling aspects of quantum mechanics, including a phenomenon known as “entanglement” – in which two members of a pair of bits can exist in a single state, even if far apart.

Adding extra qubits, therefore, leads to a massive boost in processing power.

In a study published in Nature, the international team designed the Sycamore quantum processer, made up of 54 qubits interconnected in a lattice pattern.

They used the machine to perform a task related to random-number generation, identifying patterns amid seemingly random spools of figures.

The Sycamore, just a few millimeters across, solved the task within 200 seconds, a process that on a regular machine would take 10,000 years – several hundreds of millions of times faster, in other words.

Discovery

John Martinis, of Google AI or artificial intelligence, and a study author, told a media briefing that his colleagues were “excited we can start talking” about the discovery.

“The physics was right … Physicists thought this would work, they had faith in quantum physics … and tech companies now will see that this technology is much closer than they thought,” he said.

Immediate applications of quantum computing could be in encryption software and AI, but its calculations could eventually lead to more efficient solar panels, drug design and even smarter and better financial transactions.

Yet this week’s announcement was not without controversy.

After a leaked draft of the Google lab’s paper appeared online last month, chip-maker IBM, which runs its own quantum computing programme, said the boasts of the Sycamore computer’s feats were exaggerated.

Instead of 10,000 years for an ordinary supercomputer to match Sycamore’s performance, IBM scientists claimed it would be more like two-and-a-half years using the most sophisticated traditional processors.

“Because the original meaning of the term ‘quantum supremacy’ … was to describe the point where quantum computers can do things that classical computers can’t, this threshold has not been met,” they wrote on their blog.

– additional reporting AFP