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Bridge Bytes: One Small Step for Tech, One Giant Leap for Science; Quantum Supremacy and What It Really Means

31 Oct 10:00 by Ben Taylor

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The day is Wednesday 23rd October 2019 and Google has just claimed quantum supremacy… no, this isn’t the start of a new Star Wars film. Now, when you hear the term ‘quantum supremacy’, you could be forgiven for conjuring up images of a ‘War of the Worlds’-esque landscape dominated by super computers (or maybe not). But are Google’s claims really as impressive as they first sound?

In simple terms, quantum supremacy is when a quantum computer has achieved something that a classical digital computer couldn’t simulate within a reasonable time frame, and Google claims that their Sycamore chip has done just that. Google’s quantum processor (Sycamore) was able to perform a task in 200 seconds, which they say would take the world’s best supercomputer 10,000 years (yes, years) to complete – impressive right? Well, while Google certainly think so, IBM have downplayed their ‘supremacy’ in favour of the term ‘value’.

While there has definitely been a burst of progress in quantum computing recently, with Nature (one of the most recognizable scientific journals in the world) estimating that private firms working in quantum-related technology have raised double the amount of money in 2017 and 2018 than in the previous five years, no one really knows when the current quantum technology, including Google’s supreme Sycamore chip will be able to solve problems that we’re actually interested in. David Poulin, codirector of the quantum information program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research described Google’s achievement as a ‘scientific milestone’ and ‘not a technology milestone’.

Scientists have been working on quantum computers for decades due to the fact they promise much faster speeds, and whilst Google’s claims are certainly a step in the right direction, it may still be a couple more decades before we see the quantum computer mature into something like that of the one in The Forbin Project.

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