Somewhere in California, Google is building a device that will usher in a new era for computing. It’s a quantum computer, the largest ever made, designed to prove once and for all that machines exploiting exotic physics can outperform the world’s top supercomputers.
And New Scientist has learned it could be ready sooner than anyone expected – perhaps even by the end of next year.
The quantum computing revolution has been a long time coming. In the 1980s, theorists realised that a computer based on quantum mechanics had the potential to vastly outperform ordinary, or classical, computers at certain tasks. But building one was another matter. Only recently has a quantum computer that can beat a classical one gone from a lab curiosity to something that could actually happen. Google wants to create the first.
The firm’s plans are secretive, and Google declined to comment for this article. But researchers contacted by New Scientist all believe it is on the cusp of a breakthrough, following presentations at conferences and private meetings.
“They are definitely the world leaders now, there is no doubt about it,” says Simon Devitt at the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science in Japan. “It’s Google’s to lose. If Google’s not the group that does it, then something has gone wrong.”
We have had a glimpse of Google’s intentions. Last month, its engineers quietly published a paper detailing their plans (arxiv.org/abs/1608.00263). Their goal, audaciously named quantum supremacy, is to build the first quantum computer capable of performing a task no classical computer can.
“It’s a blueprint for what they’re planning to do in the next couple of years,” says Scott Aaronson at the University of Texas at Austin, who has discussed the plans with the team.
So how will they do it? Quantum computers process data as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike classical bits, these can store a mixture of both 0 and 1 at the same time, thanks to the principle of quantum superposition. It’s this potential that gives quantum computers the edge at certain problems, like factoring large numbers. But ordinary computers are also pretty good at such tasks. Showing quantum computers are better would require thousands of qubits, which is far beyond our current technical ability.
Instead, Google wants to claim the prize with just 50 qubits. That’s still an ambitious goal – publicly, they have only announced a 9-qubit computer – but one within reach. More here: Revealed: Google’s plan for quantum computer supremacy