The future of computing looks more like an movie villain’s superweapon than the history-making machine Google claims. Suspended from a steel platform, layers of gold-plated copper conductors and intricately threaded pipes are arranged. It is only the small microchip, buried towards the bottom of it all, that betrays the fact that this is a computer. Computer scientists have for decades sought to harness the behaviour of sub-atomic particles that can simultaneously exist in different states — in contrast to the “real” world that people perceive around them.
Google developed a microprocessor, named Sycamore, that packs a total of 54 qubits. Measuring about 10 mm across, it is made using aluminium and indium parts sandwiched between two silicon wafers. In their experiment, the researchers were able to get 53 of the qubits — connected to each other in a lattice pattern — to interact in a so-called quantum state. They then set the quantum computer a complex task to detect patterns in a series of seemingly random numbers. It solved the problem in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. They estimated that the same problem would take 10,000 years for a Summit supercomputer – the most powerful in the world today — to solve.
“This dramatic increase in speed compared to all known classical algorithms is an experimental realization of quantum supremacy for this specific computational task, heralding a much-anticipated computing paradigm,” wrote the research team, led by Google AI’s Frank Arute. “Quantum computers will never reign ‘supreme’ over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths,” Dario Gil, director of research at IBM. “We certainly share IBMs concerns about the general concept of ‘quantum supremacy’ in relation to a truly application-orientated advancement of the field,” he said, adding progress was likely to be achieved through such hybrid combinations.