Bytes & snarls: Google claims it has achieved quantum supremacy, but IBM disagrees

Varun Aggarwal Mumbai | Updated on October 24, 2019

Sundar Pichai with a Google quantum computer at its lab in Santa Barbara, US   -  REUTERS

A war of words has erupted between Google and IBM over what can be termed as quantum supremacy and if Google has really achieved that.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, on Wednesday, announced that the company has achieved “a distinct milestone in our effort to harness the principles of quantum mechanics to solve computational problems.”

IBM, however, was quick to respond, calling the achievement a hoax, saying what Google claims to have achieved using a quantum computer can be done using a supercomputer in just 2.5 days. Google, in its claim, said its quantum computer was able to perform a task in 200 seconds that would’ve taken today’s fastest super computers thousands of years.

“We are able to achieve these enormous speeds only because of the quality of control we have over the qubits. Quantum computers are prone to errors, yet our experiment showed the ability to perform a computation with few enough errors at a large enough scale to outperform a classical computer,” Pichai said in a blog post.

Qubits, not bits

Quantum computers are fundamentally different from today’s computers in that they work on something called qubits instead of bits. So, while quantum computers can theoretically perform tasks in seconds that all supercomputers put together can’t achieve in thousands of years, the word is still out on what can be termed as unachievable by today’s computers.

In an earlier interview with BusinessLine, Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice-President, Hybrid Cloud, and Director of IBM Research, had said: “Quantum computer is not about making problems that you can solve on today’s computers go faster. There are a set of problems you can never solve on a regular computer, but you can on a quantum computer. If you want to simulate a molecule of something like caffeine, which has 160 electrons, it would require a computer that’s 1/10th the volume of our planet. But that can be done with a quantum computer the size of a small room.”

Bit of a stretch

To top this, quantum computers are prone to errors. What that means is that while they may be good at predicting probabilities, they could be disastrous if used to compute your bank’s annual interest.

Google claims that it’s been able to use its quantum computer with few errors to make it outperform today's supercomputer. But to call it quantum supremacy is a bit of a stretch, argues IBM, which itself is one of the biggest investors in quantum computing technology.

Whether or not you can term Google's achievement this week a feat in quantum supremacy or not, quantum computers remain out of bounds for commercial applications for at least five years. And that’s something that everyone seems to agree on.

Pichai also agrees that quantum computers would complement, and not necessarily compete with, today’s computers.

“Quantum computing will be a great complement to the work we do (and will continue to do) on classical computers. In many ways quantum brings computing a full circle, giving us another way to speak the language of the universe and understand the world and humanity, not just in 1s and 0s but in all of its states: beautiful, complex, and with limitless possibility,” he said.

Published on October 24, 2019

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