Google says it’s achieved quantum supremacy. Here’s what it means.

Google announced that achieved quantum supremacy, a feat of computing that has some computer scientists impressed and others skeptical.

October 24, 2019

In a paper published Wednesday, Google announced it’s building a computer that can solve a quantum math problem in about 3 minutes. For comparison, the company says it would take the world’s largest supercomputers 10k years to solve the same problem. 

The news isn’t exactly surprising — the paper leaked on NASA’s website last month. But the announcement is the official rollout, with all of that classic Silicon Valley fanfare: a paper in the science journal Nature and a philosophical blog post from CEO Sundar Pichai. 

Ahhh, ‘Quantum of Solace’ — my favorite 007 movie

Spoiler: Daniel Craig’s not in this one. 

Quick physics refresher: Everything is made up of atoms. There’s a set of rules for how atoms typically behave. That’s physics. But when those atoms are in places that are either a) super small or b) super cold, all hell breaks loose. They behave in a completely different way. That’s quantum physics.  

How that applies to computers: traditional computers, like the one in your hand right now, process “bits” of information. Every “bit” is assigned a 1 or a 0. But in a quantum computer, where the environment is cold, small, or both, “bits” can behave like both a 1 and a 0 at the same time.

A very cold war, literally

To borrow one of Pichai’s talking points, this discovery is like the Wright Brothers’ first flight. A breakthrough… but not exactly applicable to much, and pretty much confined to the research lab. For now. 

Some people — cough, IBM — don’t think Google’s actually nailed it yet. But if quantum computers can actually be built, experts say they’d work exponentially faster than today’s supercomputers, breaking unbreakable codes and solving unsolvable math problems. 

Which is why companies and countries all over the world are competing to bring them up to speed. The US and China are pouring money into quantum computing, since researchers think quantum computers could eventually do things like break codes. Easily. 

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