Google claims quantum supremacy

Courtesy of Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

Revolution is a term that inspires both hope and fear, but for the most part, the world has embraced the information revolution we currently live in. Despite the problems that have arisen from our digital universe, our governments, media and societies have irrevocably intertwined themselves with information technology. For better or for worse, the next big phase of the information revolution may be about to begin.

A study by Google was recently published in the highly reputed Nature journal, claiming that the search engine juggernaut had achieved quantum supremacy. If their claims prove true, the breakthrough spells the dawn of the next big leap in human history. But what exactly is quantum supremacy?

In traditional computing, data is encoded in binary (zeros and ones), with each zero or one taking up a certain amount of space. Quantum computing allows for the space required for one value to hold more than one separate value simultaneously. This means that data can be computed in a different, faster way; comparing quantum computing to traditional computing is like comparing a TI-84 Inspire calculator to an abacus. In theory, a quantum computer could outperform a traditional computer by up to several degrees of magnitude. Given the degree to which the world has changed due to the advent of traditional computers, powerful quantum computers would undoubtedly spell the dawn of a new age.

Quantum supremacy is a milestone in which a quantum computer overtakes traditional computing to the extent that it performs a task traditional computers could not do in a reasonable amount of time. As such, reaching quantum supremacy means that the quantum computer in question would outperform every traditional computer in existence, ushering in a world of even faster supercomputers. Quantum computers have existed for decades, but have still not been able to reach quantum supremacy. At least, not until now.

Google’s study claims that their quantum computer, Sycamore, performed a calculation in 200 seconds that would take IBM’s Summit, the world’s largest traditional computer, approximately 10,000 years (The Verge, “Google may have just ushered in an era of ‘quantum supremacy,’” 09.23.2019). In other words, Google claims to have achieved quantum supremacy, and to have achieved it by a wide margin. IBM has disputed the study, claiming that Summit is faster and Sycamore is slower than Google claims (IBM Research Blog, “On ‘Quantum Supremacy,’” 10.21.2019). While the veracity of the study has yet to be determined, endorsement from Google and Nature, two highly respected organizations, lends much credibility. However, even if the claim to quantum supremacy is false, the power exhibited by Sycamore demonstrates that quantum computers are at least very close to overtaking traditional computers and achieving supremacy.

When quantum supremacy is reached, a revolution will begin. With an unprecedented amount of computing power, trillions of data points could be analyzed to create algorithms of unique complexity and discover patterns that could revolutionize how we think of the world. Complex issues such as the causes and impacts of climate change would not necessarily be solved, but could very feasibly be understood to a new degree by analyzing the data to a level that was previously infeasible. Another example is drug development. Creating drugs requires the observation of thousands of pairings of molecules, which would become much faster and thus much more viable with supreme quantum machines. In a world where drug development could advance at a record-breaking speed, medicine would progress to a degree that would make our current triumphs pale in comparison.

However, power in any form can be used for both good and evil purposes, and so more informatic power could also spell disaster. Anyone’s location, habits, identity and more could theoretically be derived in a very short amount of time given sufficient information. Consequently, countries with high amounts of civilian surveillance would be able to easily crack down on dissidents and thereby maintain their regimes. Drugs of more sinister capabilities could be formed just as easily as those of medicinal purposes, so engineering the next pandemic would theoretically be significantly easier.

Additionally, the power afforded by quantum supremacy means that data security is fundamentally at risk. Modern encryption works by making “cracking” an entry code a longer process than any one hacker would have time for. However, a computer that is fast enough to circumvent time constraints would invalidate current security measures. As of now, quantum computers are too slow for this, but Google’s claim that quantum computing speed will increase at a “double exponential” rate (The Verge) makes it very likely that quantum computers with sufficient power could exist in the future.

Even if quantum computing were only used to break modern encryption, it would still render the protections of valuable government, corporate and personal information useless, as well as the protections for every weapons system connected to a computer on the planet. Thus, as long as someone with a supreme quantum computer has access to anything from an email account to a nuclear missile launch system, they could very easily hack the technological defenses and gain total control. Cryptographers are currently hard at work, and hopefully, post-quantum cryptography will create solutions to encrypt the most dangerous tools and information in a way that a quantum computer could not crack. However, until post-quantum cryptography has a breakthrough, the world is vulnerable.

It is important to note that all these potential catastrophes are merely possibilities, and the likelihood of such events happening is slim. Under the assumption that quantum supremacy has been achieved, all that can be claimed for certain is that the world is on the cusp of a new technological age. Quantum computers are very unlikely to make it into the hands of the average consumer, at least for many years to come. However, their usage by research labs and governments will undoubtedly shape our future.

Until the future arrives, the nature of this technological revolution is entirely unpredictable. For now, all that can be done is to wait and see what comes of Google’s breakthrough.

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