Silicon Valley giant Google and space agency NASA have demonstrated the ability to compute in three minutes what would take even the most advanced supercomputers 10,000 years, achieving a milestone dubbed “quantum supremacy”. Eugene Tu, director at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said: “Quantum computing is still in its infancy, but this transformative achievement rockets us forward. “Our missions in the decades to go to the Moon, Mars and beyond are all fuelled by innovations like this.”
Quantum computing is the study of how to harness the unique properties of quantum mechanics to solve certain types of problems exponentially faster than traditional computers.
NASA could eventually use this tech in the next generation of space missions, with quantum supercomputers making mission schedules more efficient and aiding the design of cutting-edge materials for new forms of space travel.
A NASA statement said: “This milestone is the first step toward the future.”
A paper published yesterday Nature describes the experiments run by Google’s Sycamore quantum processor to demonstrate quantum supremacy.
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To ensure this milestone had indeed been met, NASA and Google used Summit – the world’s most powerful supercomputer.
There, they tested whether the quantum computer’s results matched with Summit’s all the way up to the quantum supremacy limit – and found that they did.
Rupak Biswas, director of the Exploration Technology Directorate at Ames, said: “Since 2013, our collaboration with Google has worked to further demystify the possibilities of computing in the quantum world.
“Today’s achievement of quantum supremacy is an exciting milestone, one that Ames is very proud of supporting.”
The reported achievement has, however, already been mired in controversy.
Researchers at IBM have claimed the Summit supercomputer used in the NASA experiment was not used efficiently, which they claim explains the less-than-flattering 10,000-year time lag.
By calibrating Summit differently for the same experiment, IBM argues “an ideal simulation of the same task can be performed on a classical system in 2.5 days and with far greater fidelity.”
Controversies like this, given the extremely technical and scientifically esoteric nature of the research and concepts involved, are actually quite common.
Professor Stephen Bartlett, a quantum information theorist at the University of Sydney, said: “While we believe that some quantum computations will be out of reach of any conventional computer, it is a challenge to argue that any particular set of processes cannot be simulated through some suitable trick.”