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Has Google Finally Achieved Quantum Supremacy?

If you were a Mexican girl who was born the day Google debuted their IPO, you’d have celebrated your quinceañera this past summer. If you bought some shares in Google around the time of the IPO as we did, you’d be up +2,219% on your investment. If at the time you bought those shares you were broke AF and only had a few grand to punt with, today you might have enough profits to pick up an entry-level BMW but you’d still be working for the man. A very valuable lesson learned – you got to have money to make money.

We’re shareholders in Google, though we trimmed the position a bit when they decided it was a great idea to start taking sides in U.S. politics. (At least they’re not pulling a Facebook and telling their employees there’s no such thing as a meritocracy.) Still, investing in the company that controls 95% of the world’s information seems like a decent investment thesis. If you’re a Google shareholder, you also own stock in the first company to claim quantum supremacy.

Google and Quantum Computing

As a company, Google is working on lots of moonshots from fusion energy to global internet. Their cash cow search engine business provides the capital needed for the company to dabble in all kinds of disruptive technologies which led to all the analysts claiming you can “Invest in Everything With Google.” One of Google’s moonshots happens to be quantum computing, and the company joins three other large tech firms – IBM, Microsoft, and Intel – to be considered the four main contenders in the race to unleash the power of quantum mechanics and commercialize quantum computing.

It’s a topic we wrote about in 2017 with our piece on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Quantum Computing which said “after 8 years’ work, a 25-strong group of Google engineers has made a new quantum chip that they hope to demonstrate before the end of the year.” Two and a half years later, and Google’s claiming they’ve made a breakthrough.

There are loads of articles that are covering this event, so we need to stay focused. Let’s stick with trying to answer the following questions:

  • What did Google actually say?
  • What do the experts think of what Google said?
  • What do Google’s competitors say about it?

Google claims they’ve reached “quantum supremacy,” an event defined as when a quantum computer can do something much quicker than a classical computer – orders of magnitude quicker.

What Google Said

At the core of Google’s claim is an aptly titled paper they published yesterday, “Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor.” Here’s the core of their quantum supremacy claim in a nutshell:

Our Sycamore processor takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of a quantum circuit a million times—our benchmarks currently indicate that the equivalent task for a state-of-the-art classical supercomputer would take approximately 10,000 years.

The task being performed is “sampling the output of a pseudo-random quantum circuit,” and “random circuits are a suitable choice for benchmarking because they do not possess structure and therefore allow for limited guarantees of computational hardness,” according to Google. That’s it in a nutshell, with the below visual describing the steps taken.

Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor

Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor – Source: Google Blog Post

Google goes on to say “To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can be performed only on a quantum processor. Quantum processors have thus reached the regime of quantum supremacy.”

In addition to the actual paper, the second piece of information we have to work with is Google’s blog piece on the announcement which carries the same name as the paper. Authored by several Chief Scientists over at Google, the blog post describes what was performed as “a sensitive computational benchmark that fails if just a single component of the computer is not good enough.” The experiment was successful because of improved “two-qubit gates” that successfully reduced errors. (Errors are one of the biggest impediments to achieving quantum supremacy.)

What IBM Says

“Quantum advantage” is defined by IBM as “the point at which quantum applications deliver a significant, practical benefit beyond what classical computers alone are capable.” Based on that definition, IBM uses something to measure their progress called “quantum volume.” They believe that the term “quantum supremacy” has some problems associated with it, and two days before Google’s blog post IBM posted their own blog post titled “On Quantum Supremacy.” Here’s it in a nutshell:

We urge the community to treat claims that, for the first time, a quantum computer did something that a classical computer cannot with a large dose of skepticism due to the complicated nature of benchmarking an appropriate metric.

IBM thinks that the news from Google is an “excellent demonstration of the progress in superconducting-based quantum computing” but cannot be considered quantum supremacy. Simply put, IBM believes that what Google says would take 10,000 years to do on a classical computer actually only takes IBM 2.5 days to do on a classical computer. Why? According to IBM, it’s all about Google’s failure “to fully account for plentiful disk storage.”

IBM’s approach “uses both RAM and hard drive space” so the argument is that using all the resources available, Google wouldn’t need 10,000 years to do the same on a classical computer – just 2.5 days. In looking at the bigger picture, IBM claims that quantum supremacy is a misleading statement. (They stop short of claiming that quantum volume should be used instead.) IBM says it’s “fundamentally, because quantum computers will never reign “supreme” over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths.” That’s not the first time we’ve heard someone say that.

What the Experts Say

This past spring, we sent one of our MBAs to Vancouver, Canada for the sole purpose of smoking BC’s finest researching exciting technology startups. During that visit we met with Landon Downs, Co-founder and President of one of the world’s leading quantum computing software companies – 1QBit – to learn How Quantum Computing Software Gets Built. Regardless of whether you call it quantum supremacy or quantum advantage, here’s how Mr. Downs thinks we’ll know that quantum computing has finally arrived (paraphrased in our words):

We’ll know when there’s an actual use case that’s being tackled. A very specific use case, which we will then reverse engineer to find other use cases that are similar enough to be tackled in the same manner. There’s only one problem though. We may not know when that use case gets here because it’s highly likely that whoever develops that use case doesn’t want anyone else to know about it. It’s not some big conspiracy theory, but rather the fact that whoever gets the “quantum advantage” doesn’t necessarily want everyone else to know about it.

What Google did wouldn’t be considered a use case in that they’re not solving some real-world problem. Or maybe they are, and they’re just not telling anyone, and those Mandela Effect proponents actually have it right. Says the Google blog post:

Since achieving quantum supremacy results last spring, our team has already been working on near-term applications, including quantum physics simulation and quantum chemistry, as well as new applications in generative machine learning, among other areas.

The clients of 1QBIT demand high levels of confidentiality, so if Google has clients making progress on real-world use cases, you’re probably never going to hear about it. That may not be the case though. According to the Google blog post, there are two main objectives going forward: invest in building a quantum computer and get their chip in the hands of researchers. Regarding the latter, the Google blog post states:

In the future we will make our supremacy-class processors available to collaborators and academic researchers, as well as companies that are interested in developing algorithms and searching for applications for today’s NISQ processors.

Google has loads of access to capital so what advantage do they get from telling people they’ve achieved quantum supremacy? It’s probably the same reason why IBM felt like throwing in their two cents. There’s a big potential market to be realized here, and even bigger egos that want their names listed alongside whatever breakthrough it is we’re all hoping for.

Conclusion

Maybe what Google achieved here isn’t nearly as significant as they claim. After all, the very definition of quantum supremacy is debatable with some believing it’s when we actually do something useful with a quantum computer. What’s encouraging about Google’s recent news is the same thing that both 1QBit and IBM found encouraging – more and more researchers are digging in and helping to propel quantum computing forward. All kinds of quantum computing startups have cropped up in the past decade and investors are willing to commit capital to something they believe we’ll be able to crack. While Google may be the first to claim quantum supremacy, they certainly won’t be the last.

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