Nature named John Martinis as one of the scientists behind 2019’s top ten moments in science.
Martinis is a physicist who works both at Google and at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As leader of Google’s quantum computer efforts, he has spent 17 years honing the hardware that underpins the firm’s quantum computer, named Sycamore.
This year, a team of more than 70 scientists and engineers showed that, for a specific challenge — calculating the spread of outputs from a kind of quantum random-number generator — Sycamore could do in 200 seconds what they estimated would take the best supercomputer 10,000 years (although others argued that it would need only days).
The feat relied on improved hardware that lowered error rates and connected qubits in new ways. Some physicists debated the significance of the landmark, and the task has limited practical application. But Martinis says the experiment’s importance lies in demonstrating something fundamental: that physicists’ understanding of quantum interactions — learnt on small quantum systems — remains true at larger scales and complexity.
“That’s really good news,” he said.
At its heart of quantum computers are tiny superconducting loops known as qubits, quantum systems that seem to exist in multiple states until they are observed. Physicists have long theorized that harnessing interactions between qubits could enable computers to excel at certain calculations, such as probing otherwise unsearchable databases and cracking conventional encryption.
Martinis said that a lecture changed his scientific life. When was a graduate student in the mid-1980s, he went to a lecture that feature famous physicist Richard Feynman, who discussed the idea of using particles’ quantum characteristics to make computers that could do things that are impossible on conventional machines.
“It was clear to me that this was a great idea and that it would be wonderful to work on it,” Martinis said.