The atmosphere is tense, uncertain, ominous … a reminder in a way of how it was in March of 1964 when the young Cassius Clay took on the larger Sonny Liston. All eyes are on Google and IBM, as they square off in a battle for quantum dominance that, some wags say, will not soon be settled.
A slip of a curfew gave indications Google would soon announce it had achieved Quantum Supremacy. This is a long-anticipated moment in some technology quarters, and Google’s competitors were on alert for something akin to a prize fight.
Quantum Supremacy is the moment at which researchers could declare quantum computers capable of solving problems that have been beyond the reach of classical computing machines. It is important to AI and big data users that may be finding the limits of silicon microprocessors that have tapped out Gordon Moore’s Law of never-ending computing improvements.
Now back to that missed curfew. Google Research’s collaborators at NASA had inadvertently posted a paper meant to be held until this week, when Nature magazine would publish the findings of quantum dominance. The miscue gave quantum competitor IBM time to prepare its defense, suggesting Google drastically mis-estimated the capabilities of today’s best classical computers in its analysis, and that quantum supremacy wasn’t such a big deal anyway.
Google had gauged it would take IBM’s Summit supercomputer 10,000 years to perform a random number validation task that its 54-gate Sycamore quantum engine could complete in 200 seconds. With enough memory, IBM countered, “we could do much better than 10,000 years.” IBM’s Summit could instead do the job in a couple of days, the company said.
IBM has reasonable bones to pick with Google’s quantum supremacy experiment. The small tempest obscures the likelihood that quantum computing is getting closer, but is still quite far off. That has been the status all along.
Google and IBM are only two of many players in the quantum quest. But their slight spat has put them at the forefront of attention.
For Google, quantum computing appears to be an exercise in pure research, to which any usefulness in clipping added time off Google searches would be a bonus.
For IBM on the other hand, quantum computing has become one of the fundamental elements in a quest – think Watson — to claim a prerogative to lead the next computing era.
Google’s announcement is late in some ways. Google has taken a particular interest in the quantum supremacy hurdle and, when I was researching the topic in 2017 – a very fevered year of what now seem like chimerical quantum advances — an announcement by Google had been fairly widely expected to be imminent.
That Google’s announcement has come nearly two years later with concomitant noise, flutter and thud is something that could have been anticipated. Going forward, error correction, entanglement, fault tolerance and other factors present obstacles at every step along the way.
Always stalking the effort: classic computers may still be capable of bone-jarring breakthroughs.
What will be interesting to watch is the interplay between classical computing advances and quantum computing advances.
While classical computing has been good enough to continually exceed a lot of needs, scientists doing research at the atomic and molecular level have tapped out much of classical approaches’ potential.
Putting this week’s quantum family feud aside, the work on machine learning and quantum simulation by scientists could provide the kind of inflection point that is worthy of the computing community’s expectant wait. Both IBM and Google seem to agree that advances in materials science could be a breakthrough application.
Quantum computing apps creep forwardly – SearchEAI (2017)
Timeline of quantum – Wiki
On quantum supremacy – IBM
Google’s quantum Nature article – Nature
Quantum supremacy: The gloves are off – Scott Araonson blog (100+ comments and counting)
Chemistry as quantum computing killer app – CEN.ACS