IBM, Google and quantum supremacy

What is the use of an airplane that can only fly for 12 seconds and a few meters above the ground? Right now for nothing, but in 1903, the feat of the brothers Wright It made it possible to tell the world that humanity was capable of building heavy devices capable of lifting and moving by themselves. That’s why to the director of Google, Sundar Pichailikes to use this piece of history as an example of the current moment in quantum computing.

Your company is one of the most fiercely competing in this race, in which your great rival, IBM, just announced a new record: With 127 qubits (bits in a quantum state), its new Eagle quantum processor would be the most advanced in history (although the company has not yet shared any technical report that supports it). Of course, like its historical flying counterpart, this computer gadget is good for quite little.

So why have two of the most powerful companies on the planet spent years investing millions in quantum computing? The answer lies in what they could do. Thanks to the strange laws of quantum physics, these machines would have such enormous computing power that could solve computational problems intractable by today’s most powerful supercomputers, a milestone known as quantum supremacy.

They could simulate complexity of the human body and nature at the molecular level, as well as complicated climate scenarios of the world and the science of the universe. But, for that, there is still a long way to go, if one day it is achieved. Still, both companies are struggling to demonstrate the first useful applications of these machines, with relatively little success.

One of the great milestones occurred in 2018, when Google announced that it had achieved the long-awaited supremacy. Being true to the term, yes he did. Its 53-qubit quantum computer solved in seconds a task that the most powerful computer in the world would have taken soooooooo much more to complete. Google said it did it 1.5 billion times faster, though IBM later claimed it only sped up the process 1,000 times (which is no small feat either).

In any case, Google had succeeded. The problem was that the task he solved would be for nothing. Neither discovered a new drug, nor a new material to create more efficient batteries, nor anything. Continuing with the aviation analogy, some said that using a quantum computer to solve that mathematical task was like using an airplane to cross the street. But, like the Wright brothers’ feat, Google’s served to show that it could be done.

And it is that, like aviation, quantum computing is a devilishly complicated area. Keep in mind that the world we live in responds to the laws of classical physics, while quantum properties only appear on minute scales and are extremely sensitive to disturbances from the human-sized environment.

As few qubits as it takes to outperform the most powerful classical computers, building and operating them becomes more complicated as their number increases. And what quantum computing needs to become really useful is a greater number of qubits that work correctly for as long as possible.

The magic figure for really useful quantum computing it would be around 100,000 qubits, according to several experts, a ridiculous figure compared to the billions of classic bits that make up any supercomputer. But its quantum state is so delicate that the slightest noise undoes it, like when you cut your mayonnaise.

In fact, they are so difficult to produce and manipulate that there isn’t even a single approach to doing it. Today’s quantum race is like the early days of VHS and Beta video: each manufacturer says their technique is the best, but no one knows which one will come out on top.

However, although we do not yet know what form will quantum computing take of the future and for many decades to come before it becomes really useful, what is clear is that it could be revolutionary. It may not seem like it now, but there were also people who doubted the Wright brothers, and their descendants have probably had enough of getting on planes. Let’s not be like them.

Infographics of the Libra Management project in the Adif plots.

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