Nov 01, 2019

Quantum quibbling pits Google against IBM in supercomputer showdown

Google qubits

Last week, Google claimed its team of researchers had achieved quantum supremacy.

IBM soon refuted Google’s claims.

Regardless of IBM's arguments, developers should focus on the long-term, big picture: Google seems poised to take an early lead in quantum computing—if not today, then soon.

Quantum supremacy describes the superiority of a quantum computer in solving a problem that would be nearly impossible on a classical machine. In this case, Google's researchers demonstrated how they were able to complete in 200 seconds using a quantum computer a calculation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years to complete.

Quantum computers use qubits, rather than traditional binary bits, for computation. A traditional bit must be in one state, either a 0 or 1, but a qubit can be in a superposition—existing in both states at once.

To demonstrate quantum supremacy, Google ran its calculations on a 53-qubit machine called Sycamore. For its comparison to a classical computer, Google used a machine called Summit located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Summit is the fastest computer in the world.

It was also built by IBM.

IBM argued that Summit was slower in its calculations because it ran out of memory. By tweaking the algorithm and using Summit’s extra hard-disk space, IBM claimed they could complete the original computation in just 2.5 days.

Does it matter?

Likely not. IBM’s solution is still 1,200 times slower than Google’s. Moreover, making the calculation even slightly more complex would quickly overwhelm Summit’s available memory and hard-disk space.

Researchers have struggled to find clear use cases for quantum supremacy. In many instances, quantum computers don’t provide meaningful improvements over classical computers.

IBM’s nitpicking aside, Google’s research proves that may be changing.

For developers, quantum computing will likely give them access to even faster and more powerful computation. Complex problems—like drug discovery, weather predictions, financial modeling, and artificial intelligence—will be more accessible to more developers.

We are likely many years away from seeing intense competition between cloud providers hoping to lure developers onto their quantum computing platforms. For Google, however, it’s never too early to lead the way.

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