Google Seeks ‘Quantum Supremacy’ as it Demos New Bristlecone Processor

There’s more signs today that Google is set to become either a benevolent global A.I. to save humanity, or the Umbrella Corporation of our dystopian cyberpunk future. The company with the friendly-sounding name has previewed “Bristlecone”, its experimental quantum computing processor it wants to use to solve real-world problems, and be first to achieve something called “quantum supremacy”.

The term “quantum supremacy” may not be as scary as it sounds (fingers crossed). It actually refers to whether a quantum device can beat today’s “classical” computers at a defined computer science problem without needing additional error-correction mechanisms.

Google’s Quantum A.I. Labs demonstrated the Bristlecone chip in Los Angeles on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society. At this stage, Bristlecone’s main purpose is as a platform for further research into scalability and error rates — the latter of which is a problem that has plagued quantum computing to date.

The Bristlecone processor

First Quantum Supremacy, Then Hopes (and Fears)

Quantum hardware, which uses multi-state “qubits” instead of today’s on-off binary bits, are fast making the leap from theoretical to actual. Though quantum supremacy under current rules is still yet-to-be achieved, once that happens computers will increase in both speed and functionality at an exponential rate.

This prospect has led to hopes for potential new A.I. solutions to the world’s hardest problems, with giant leaps in machine learning and simulation capabilities. Google’s blog post mused that a quantum processor could beat today’s supercomputers, once it’s working properly.

However it’s also brought fears such devices will quickly render all of today’s encryption and information security useless — and that includes most of today’s cryptocurrencies and blockchains. Your 1 BTC might be worth a million bucks right at the same time someone’s able to swipe your private key from your public address in seconds — or mine all the remaining coins in the same time.

When Will Real Quantum Computers Appear?

Bristlecone isn’t ready to be installed in your smartphone just yet, though. One chip currently contains only 72 qubits (though the assumption is only 49 are needed for the coveted “quantum supremacy”). These superconducting systems still require the kinds of extreme cold you can only create in a lab environment, the error rate remains too high, and the kicker: they’re only stable for about 100 microseconds.

(As you take comfort in that, though, remember: at the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004, early self-driving cars couldn’t even find their way out of the parking lot.)

If Google can achieve quantum supremacy, which it says it can “with 49 qubits, a circuit depth exceeding 40, and a two-qubit error below 0.5 percent”, then it would regard the demonstration as a “watershed moment” for quantum computing research, justifying resources towards much larger devices.

The theoretical threat from quantum technology to today’s encryption (and cryptocurrencies) is often discussed and debated by industry researchers. Some, such as the Russian Quantum Center, claim to have already tested an “unbreakable” form of “quantum cryptography” that could be integrated into existing systems… by the time it’s needed.

While researchers seem to agree the threat is real, opinions differ on how large, and when, it will be — and how easily it can be overcome. Barring a major eureka moment in research, realistic and useful quantum computers could still be years, or even decades, away.

Does Google’s research in this field excite, or scare you? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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