Achieving “quantum supremacy” sounds like the goal of an over-the-top comic book super-villain. Apparently it’s also something Google has accomplished. Google acting like a comic book super-villain is hardly news, but this “quantum supremacy” bit is pretty interesting. No, Google didn’t gain mastery over the fundamental pieces of reality (yet), but what they did reportedly do is demonstrate the first-ever computing problem that can be solved by quantum computers but not by conventional computers. This is significant in that it marks a major step towards quantum computers moving from a nerdy curiosities to paradigm shifting machines capable of upending cryptography and cyber-security, and speeding up computational advancement exponentially. In other words, it’s confirmation that things are going to get weird.
Google reportedly achieved the feat using a 53-qubit quantum computer named “Sycamore,” a stripped down version of their original, more powerful quantum computer named “Bristlecone.” Although no details were given about the problem the computer was tasked with solving, according to a paper released on a NASA website (which has since been taken down for unknown reasons), the problem would have taken even the most advanced ‘classical’ supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. The quantum computer “Sycamore” solved it in three minutes and twenty seconds.
Let that sink in. Think of all the ridiculous stuff accomplished by so-called “classical” computers. Whatever this problem was—likely some sort of cryptographic seal—would have taken the computers that brought us into this weird future 10,000 years to solve. Google’s stripped down quantum computer, not even their most impressive, solved it in under four minutes. The phrase “quantum supremacy” is derived from the fact that 10,000 years is far too long to wait for something to do a math problem, and this is the first example of a problem that can be solved by quantum computers but not classical ones.
According to the now-disappeared paper (by way of Neowin):
This dramatic speed-up relative to all known classical algorithms provides an experimental realisation of quantum supremacy on a computational task and heralds the advent of a much-anticipated computing paradigm. To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.
Steve Brierley, founder of Riverlane, a startup focused on quantum computing, says:
“It’s a significant milestone, and the first time that somebody has shown that quantum computers could outperform classical computers at all. It’s an amazing achievement.”
It’s doubtful that quantum computers will ever replace your home or office desktop, they’re just different sorts of machines. But quantum computers are likely to bring about a paradigm shift in cyber-security and simulation technology. Right now, most encrypted data is safe from compromise simply because the necessary calculations are unfeasible for classical computers. With quantum computers, it’s all fairly compromised. Although, likely not for a while. So don’t change your bank password, convert all your money to gold bullion and bury it in your back yard like a patriot.