In a hurriedly organised press conference last month in Santa Barbara, Google announced the creation of a “quantum supremacy” computer. Unfortunately for Google, it didn’t evoke the enthusiastic reception they envisioned. Far from it, it provoked a full-scale computer geek showdown, with spokespeople from the world’s most significant technology companies going head to head.
Operating in a completely different way from conventional machines by utilising the power of physics on a subatomic level, quantum computers are seen by the tech industry as technological nirvana. With Google claiming to have acquired this ‘Holy Grail’ in computing history, tech fingers are wagging, arguing that Google is misleading the public.
Google insists its machine, AKA Sycamore, had taken three minutes to complete a calculation that IBM’s Summit supercomputer would have achieved in a whopping 10,000 years. This finding made it the “first computation that can be performed only on a quantum processor”.
By employing properties that exceed the limits of classical physics and drawing on the mysterious world of quantum mechanics, Google alludes to a tantalising prospect: enormous gains in computing power with the tremendous potential to unlock a multiverse of new possibilities.
Advocates claim quantum computers could help to formulate new deadly disease-fighting medicines – like cancer or AIDS cures. They could also supercharge artificial intelligence development AND find answers to our potentially disastrous climate situation.
John Preskill first coined the term ‘quantum supremacy’ in 2012. The American theoretical physicist said quantum supremacy is the point at which a quantum computer can complete calculations that would be impossible even for the most powerful conventional equipment.
But IBM is furious at Google’s announcement, demanding that their claims are unsubstantiated. IBM challenged the tech giants – questioning whether the experiment used by Google to measure the performance of its quantum machine – was legitimate.
Whatever the answer and whoever is in the right, it’s clear, and incredibly exciting, that significant advances in this field are happening, and sooner or later will bear real-world results.
Even to the everyday (non tech-genius) person, it’s no secret the technology to develop quantum computers has proved incredibly difficult to master. One of the main hurdles being that to work, certain elements must be chilled to temperatures close to absolute zero.
However, with billions of shiny investment dollars pouring in, substantial progress is being made at laboratories around the world. Managed by Google, IBM and others, researchers are gradually pushing the boundaries of technology.
But research dollars aside, don’t expect to own one any time soon. Within the next decade or so, the power of quantum computers will feasibly leave the lab and make their spectacular mark in our everyday lives. Their launch could herald a new dawn in technology.