The technological race for Quantum Supremacy

Google claimed to have reached quantum supremacy. IBM doesn't agree.

Recently, the world of computer science received news that would represent a revolution in technology: Google claimed to have achieved quantum supremacy.

The Financial Times broke the news, referring to an article published by NASA. However, the paper was withdrawn in a short time, while some people questioned the claim of the technology giant.

But what is Quantum Supremacy? First, let’s review what quantum computing is.

There are X types of people.

There are ten types of people: those who know binary and those who don’t. This old joke is common to hear among people familiar with information technologies. It is Computation 101. The language of the machines is binary. In a small space, the microprocessors do binary operations at impressive speeds. However, reaching that point took at least two centuries of research, since they began using punch cards for clothing looms. 

Could some computers process in a language other than binary? The consensus in the scientific community was no. However, three theoretical physicists showed that it was possible.

Paul Benioff took the first step. Benioff worked on the idea between the 70s and 80s and developed a quantum model of a Turing machine, that is, an abstract model of how a computer would process information based on the rules of quantum physics. Richard Feynman and David Deutsch followed Benioff. 

The energetic “no” at that time became a “yes, in theory.” However, few people were interested in the matter. Yes, a quantum computer is possible, but would it do something different from classical computers?

Peter Shor showed the usefulness of a quantum computer. While working in the research division of AT&T, Shor developed an algorithm that proved to be more effective than classic machines. Then, quantum computers are possible and also useful. Now we needed to know how to build them.

Start a technological career.

In the competition to build a functional quantum computer, IBM took the lead. The research division IBM Research led by Chuang managed to create a one qubit computer and tested Shor’s algorithms. Since then, IBM has been one of the companies that have contributed the most in the field of quantum computing. The advances of IBM have allowed the company to present the first commercial quantum computer, the Q System One

When triumphant trumpets announced that Google had reached Quantum Supremacy, IBM was the first company to question such a claim. 

Quantum Supremacy refers to the hypothetical fact that a quantum computer performs better than traditional computers. With more than 20 years of research in the field, IBM knows how far we are from getting this point.

At present, quantum computers are not very different from the computers of the 50s, which used an entire building and consumed the energy of half a city to do operations that a low-end cell phone can now do. These computers require special electronic equipment that, to function correctly, must operate at shallow temperatures. Technical problems due to energy variations cause computers to stop working and must be reset. The IBM Q System One reduced the reset time from weeks to hours, which was already a great achievement.

That someone from Melon Park comes and tells them that building a quantum computer that does operations much faster than the world’s most powerful supercomputers is simply offensive.

Hasty assertions?

The article submitted by Google was quickly removed and is no longer available. Dario Gil, head of research at IBM, denied that Google had achieved quantum supremacy. For the researcher, Google only built a computer capable of solving a single problem and not of general use, such as those that IBM has.

In spite of everything, Google received some applause for its achievement. Jim Clake, director of quantum hardware at Intel, said Google’s recent update on quantum supremacy is a remarkable breakthrough in the potential of quantum computing.

Google had set a goal to achieve quantum supremacy in 2017, but the company’s ambitions were frustrated when its 72-qubits system became unstable. Currently, the 53-qubit Google Sycamore computer is the company’s most advanced. This machine was the computer that managed to solve in a short time a problem that would take a conventional equipment a lot of time: to know if a random number generator is truly random.

Although the Google computer solved this problem in less time than the more powerful supercomputers, it still does not address other tasks that conventional computers solve today.

It seems that taking the quantum leap will still take many more years, but the tech giants continue in the race.