Quantum Supremacy: Are we at the end of the beginning?

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Quantum supremacy may mean we aren't at the end, or the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of a revolution in computing. Credit: insspirito Pixabay

Last week, Google AI scientists said their quantum computer outperformed a classical computer. And it wasn’t just that the quantum computer — called Sycamore — outperformed the classical computer, it allegedly beat it by a vast, vast stretch. Sycamore verified the randomness of large number in a little over three minutes. That same task would take a supercomputer more than 10,000 years to accomplish, according to the study.

Now, researchers are weighing in on not whether Google achieved quantum supremacy, but why it matters. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, this initial announcement of quantum supremacy seems to mean that we might not be at the end, or the beginning of the end, but we may be at the end of the beginning of the quantum revolution.

American theoretical physicist John Preskill, who first coined the term “quantum supremacy” back in 2012, wrote in Quanta Magazine that quantum supremacy is “the point where quantum computers can do things that classical computers can’t, regardless of whether those tasks are useful.”

That mark, from all indications, has been reached.

However, according to a story in Futurism, Sycamore’s amazing computational statistics may blind us to the real-world applications of quantum computers. In other words, we are just beginning to see how these devices might change our world. Quantum computing is giving us increasing power to solve problems that were once thought were intractable, everything from discovering medicines from a near-infinite combination of chemical compounds to modeling complex economic trends and financial moves, the article points out.

Harvard’s George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin told Harvard News that the achievement show the abilities for quantum computers to scale up exponentially.

“That’s the hope. If you have a 50-qubit system and run it long enough to execute a general enough algorithm, it will be very, very challenging for the best classical computers to catch up,” he said. “And if they can catch up, you could just add a few more qubits — above 60, 70, or 100 — and it’s very clear that it will be completely impossible for a classical computer to catch up.”

But there’s a negative side, too. Encryption could fall victim to a quantum computer that can track codes we commonly use to store information, such as our credit cards and medical records.

It’s hard to tell exactly how far away we are from seizing the opportunities — and facing the problems — of quantum computing, but researchers suggest quantum supremacy will not immediately render the current classical computing obsolete. It’s a thought that is echoed by Preskill, who spoke to the LA Times.

“It won’t change anything overnight, but it is significant that quantum computers are now at the stage that at least in some arena, they can outperform the best computers on Earth,” he told the newspaper.