What Google’s ‘Quantum Supremacy’ Really Means

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With the recent news of Google’s quantum computing leap, many might be wondering what exactly this means?

If you haven’t heard, Google announced on October 23, 2019, that it had reached something called “Quantum Supremacy”.

If you don’t know what Quantum Computing is, it can generally fly over your heads so I will try to explain it in laymen’s terms first.

If you already know what it is, feel free to skip the next section. 

What is Quantum Computing?

The processing power of a chip can be extraordinary and technology is advancing further and quicker

Without going into complicated details, firstly, understanding what a computer does is essential to understanding what ‘Quantum Computing’ is.

“Classical computing” is already quite amazing but if you look below the surface, essentially it’s just a glorified calculator that uses a sequence of bits-values of 0 to 1. This represents two states and this is used to make decisions based on the inputs we provide through a set of instructions.

In contrast, a quantum computer uses quantum bits or qubits. This means it can be a one, a zero or a superposition of them both at the same time.

The main part that you need to understand is by using qubits, it will mean huge amounts of information can be stored using less energy. This will result in quantum computers being millions of times faster than our current supercomputers.

This leads us to the so-called ‘Quantum Supremacy’ news.

So what is this Quantum Supremacy news and what happened?

Source: Google — Google’s Sycamore Processor

The scenario that had occurred was Google’s quantum processor called Sycamore, which solved a specific problem in 200 seconds. These results were published in the scientific journal Nature and has secured (at least in their eyes) their position as first to achieve “Quantum Supremacy

To juxtapose the speed with a classical computer, Google stated that the world’s current fastest classical machine owned by IBM would take over 10, 000 years to crunch the exact same problem (and to add an interesting fact, IBM’s Computer, ‘Summit’, stretches over two basketball court lengths!).

IBM researchers have since hit back on claims that it’s unfair to look at one specific problem that has no practical implications and that their computer can actually solve the problem in 2.5 days rather than the 10000 years implied. But overall, IBM thinks its more of a parlor trick than a useful advance.

“Quantum supremacy, we don’t use [the term] at all,” said Robert Sutor, the executive in charge of IBM’s quantum computing strategy. “We don’t care about it at all.”

So why is this important to everyone else?

On the surface, it can seem like Quantum Computing is a bit over our heads and it certainly can be.

But it’s more on the real-world applications it can provide that can be game-changing.

It’s not like a rocket launch or a nuclear explosion, where you just watch and immediately know whether it succeeded – Scott Aaronson

From pharmaceutical drug discoveries to financial modeling, there are endless possibilities with new processing power speeds.

Let’s dive into one specific scenario as an example. 

Drug discoveries:

Discovering drugs has always been a complicated and long process. Chemists need to test a lot of molecular combinations to put together drugs that are effective at combating different types of diseases.

The process to do all of this can cost millions of dollars and years of time and mapping out all these combinations (where a lot of it is trial and error) can result in a lot of failures.

Quantum computers could help map trillions of combinations and see what would most likely work for chemists so less work is needed on trial and error. This would significantly reduce costs and time in developing new drugs. 

But it isn’t all positive news. 

Quantum computing also opens another can of worms, hacking.

In a popular podcast, Recode, Duhaime-Ross talks about how Quantum computing can break the internet by undoing a common form of encryption called RSA encryption.

”Right now, that’s how we keep a lot of information on the internet safe. But with a very powerful quantum computer​ … the time it takes to break a large number down becomes really short. And that means the key you use to encrypt stuff is easy to figure out ​and the internet is kinda screwed. But that is still mostly theoretical at this point​,” Duhaime-Ross explained.

The major concern is that once quantum computers become readily available, there will be more attempts to break current encryption algorithms which can put certain activities like banking and online transactions at great risk.

Cybersecurity will be as important as ever as technology progresses and people need to be as vigilant as ever when dealing with their personal details.

Does that mean Quantum Computing will be available to the masses?

No, and not anytime soon, unfortunately (or fortunately!). Quantum Computers are actually available soon with IBM releasing their 53 Qubit Quantum Computing for specific customers.

The costs, however, are unrealistic to the average consumer with approximate costs for one qubit costing over $10, 000 dollars.

Although it may be years or decades for quantum computing to become mainstream, the progress has been quick though with many companies participating in this area including IBM, Google, Microsoft, and other labs and startups.

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