A leaked paper from Google’s quantum computing lab claims “supremacy” over conventional computers.

What’s new: The U.S. space agency NASA, whose scientists are collaborating with Google on a quantum computer, accidentally published a paper describing the breakthrough. The Financial Times snagged a copy before it was taken down, naming machine learning, chemistry, and materials science as likely uses for the technology. Google declined to comment pending the paper’s official release.

How it works: Google designed the special-purpose system, called Sycamore, to determine whether sets of randomly generated numbers were truly random. Researchers estimate that it would have taken the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer, IBM’s Summit, 10,000 years to solve the problem. Sycamore solved it in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, an early demonstration of the capability known as quantum supremacy.

  • Instead of bits, quantum computers process information using qubits that can hold the values 1 and 0 simultaneously.
  • Qubits can be entangled with one another to represent the totality of all the states of a system’s qubits.
  • For example, two qubits can represent 11, 10, 01, and 00 at once. Three qubits can represent 111, 110, 100, 000, 001, 011, 101 simultaneously, and so on. Sycamore has 53 qubits.
  • A major challenge is keeping quantum processors cold enough to prevent ambient heat from disturbing the fragile qubits.

Behind the news: Physicist Paul Benioff wrote a paper in 1980 describing how quantum-mechanical phenomena like superposition and entanglement could be applied to computing. Google, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft lately have made substantial progress in implementing those ideas.

Why it matters: Quantum computing’s promise of exponentially faster processing in particular applications has many in the AI community excited to apply it to tasks like search and pattern matching. There’s no telling when quantum AI will emerge, but when it does, it probably will require new types of models tailored to the peculiar nature of qubits.

We’re thinking: The problem Sycamore solved doesn’t have much practical value, as computer scientist Scott Aaronson points out in his excellent quantum-supremacy FAQ. It’s more “like the Wright Brothers’ flight” circa 1903, he says: The technology works, but it will be a while before actual users can climb aboard.


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