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The Week in Tech: Google’s Quantum Leap

The company can run esoteric calculations on exotic new hardware faster than is possible on a supercomputer. It’s an achievement of little practical use, but still important.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, Google researchers described how they had used a quantum computer to perform, in 200 seconds, a series of calculations that, they claimed, would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer at least 10,000 years to closely replicate. As our colleague Cade Metz wrote, this is the first example of what researchers have called “quantum supremacy” — the point where a quantum computer can perform a task that would take traditional computers a very, very long time.

This achievement won’t turn computing on its head overnight. First, consider the device itself: A behemoth of exotic lab equipment called Sycamore, it is probably rivaled by only one or two similar devices in the world. This is nascent technology of the bleeding edge. Second, the calculations were esoteric and of little practical application; we are still a long way from such devices doing something as practical as breaking encryption. And third, it is by no means the case that quantum computers are set to totally replace traditional ones, as they could be good at only specific kinds of tasks.

Well, probably. “It’s not particularly useful in itself,” Andreas Wallraff, a quantum physicist from ETH Zurich, said. “But is shows that it can be done. I think at this stage we can be sure that quantum devices will become ever more challenging for conventional computers.”


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