Has Google Achieved Quantum Supremacy?

Google said they did last week. “If true, it is big news,” writes Chelsea Whyte in New Scientist. Quantum computers have the potential to change the way organizations design new materials, work out logistics, build artificial intelligence, and break encryption. That is why firms like Google, Intel and IBM – along with plenty of start-ups – have been racing to reach this crucial milestone, Whyte continued.

Or maybe Google hasn’t. Its claim that its 53-qubit computer performed, in 200 seconds, an arcane task that would take 10,000 years for Summit, a supercomputer that is currently the world’s fastest, which IBM built for the Department of Energy. 

qubit

As IBM puts it, writes Adrian Cho, in Science Magazine: On 21 October, IBM announced that, by tweaking the way Summit approaches the task, it can do it far faster: in 2.5 days. Therefore, notes IBM, the threshold for quantum supremacy—doing something a classical computer cannot.—has still not been met.  By tweaking the way Summit approaches the task, IBM says it can still do it far faster: in 2.5 days, Chou reports. Therefore, the threshold for quantum supremacy—doing something a classical computer can’t—has thus still not been met, IBM insists. 

Somehow, when the industry reaches the point of quantum supremacy, DancingDinosaur suspects, it won’t be with a 53-qubit device. That’s easily within range of the biggest quantum computers already available. The problem Google solved involved random numbers; specifically they tackled a random sampling problem – that is, checking that a set of numbers has a truly random distribution. Reportedly, this is very difficult for a traditional computer when there are a lot of numbers involved.  Maybe I’m still a Z big iron bigot, but breaking this threshold should take hundreds if not thousands of qubits according to published pieces.

But this raises an interesting point. If IBM can tweak its best supercomputer to reduce a process that would take years to 2.5 days, why didn’t they do it earlier? And how many other such inefficiencies are lying around that they could streamline right now?

The race for quantum supremacy may not equate with effective quantum computing or even competitively priced systems. Except for a couple of newcomers nobody is talking about price. IBM offered some free time on  its smallest qubit machines in the cloud for those who joined its quantum program but for how long? With Google, Intel, HP, and IBM – along with a handful of newcomers like D-Wave and Rigetti and any startups that pop up the race to quantum supremacy surely will be competitive but who knows what the cost will be.

DancingDinosaur’s guess is that, given the players currently involved, the quantum computing market will look a lot like today’s enterprise computing market minus the startups. As for pricing, beyond IBM’s promotional offer of free time on one of it cloud-based quantum machines these systems can’t be cheap when they finally become available. 

Just the cooling required to keep a quantum machine stable will be costly.  IBM is taking the right approach for now; put some machines in the cloud where it can provide and manage all the infrastructure required to support the machines. Don’t expect to ever buy one at Best Buy and plug it into your data center.

And then there is the talent problem.  Skilled quantum programmers and technicians probably don’t post their availability on Indeed. You’ll need a few PhDs in mathematics or physics, at the least, to get you started. Suggest you get in line at MIT or Stanford.

DancingDinosaur is Alan Radding, a veteran information technology analyst, writer, and ghost-writer. Follow DancingDinosaur on Twitter, @mainframeblog, and see more of his work at http://technologywriter.com/ 

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