Google and IBM row over ‘quantum supremacy’

Researchers at Google have said they achieved a computing milestone, but their claim has sparked a heated debate among tech giants.

Google published a scientific article in the journal Nature to detail their achievement in quantum computing – but the news of Google’s claims had leaked a month before publication.

Its researchers said they had created a computer which could carry out a calculation within hundreds of seconds that traditional computers would have taken 10,000 years to complete.

An image of the Sycamore processor. Pic: Google
Image: An image of the Sycamore processor. Pic: Google

But rival IBM has contested those findings, saying that the “one very specific” calculation Google solved had “no practical applications” and that a classical computer could actually complete it within 2.5 days.

Google responded that IBM’s 2.5 days claim remained to be tested, but that its figure of 10,000 years was based “on actual simulations we ran on Summit,” referencing IBM’s supercomputer, currently the world’s fastest.

This is an important debate about the future of computing between two of the most important technology companies tackling that problem.

But what exactly are they talking about?

More from Google

:: Quantum computing

Conventional computers handle information stored in a digital state made up of 0s and 1s, two finite states stored in a basic unit of information called a bit.

Quantum computers are capable of handling information stored in basic units called qubits, which can be both 0s and 1s at the same time.

Based on qualities of quantum physics known as quantum entanglement, the quantum computer can then perform particular calculations much faster than a classical computer.

The problem is developing the machine which can operate on all of these qubits, which often requires temperatures of close to absolute zero, or −273.15C.

:: What is quantum supremacy?

According to Google, quantum supremacy is demonstrated when a quantum computer completes a computation in a time period that a classical supercomputer could not compete with – thus it is supreme over a classical computer.

IBM’s argument challenges the kind of computation that Google used.

Dario Gil, the director of IBM Research, told Sky News: “Quantum computers are not ‘supreme’ against classical computers because of a laboratory experiment designed to essentially (and almost certainly exclusively) implement one very specific quantum sampling procedure with no practical applications.

“In fact, quantum computers will never reign ‘supreme’ over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths.”

A spokersperson for Google told Sky News: “Of course any results represent a snapshot in time, but we’re confident in the results we got, and that we’re on an exponentially steeper curve.”

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