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This article was published on October 27, 2021

China says it has a quantum computer a million times more powerful than Google’s

Eureka? Maybe?

China says it has a quantum computer a million times more powerful than Google’s

Researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China recently published a paper indicating they’ve created a quantum computer that’s one million times faster than Google’s Sycamore machine.

According to a report from the Global Times, the Chinese system “is 10 million times faster than the current fastest supercomputer and its calculation complexity is more than 1 million times higher than Google’s Sycamore processor.”

File under: Huge, if true.

Let’s be up front here, I’m not a quantum physicist. So take the grain of salt I’m about to feed you with a separate, larger grain of salt.

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The claims coming out of China are credible and the research paper appears to be totally legit. But I still don’t believe it.

What we know: the researchers built a 66-qubit quantum computer. Using two different technological paradigms, photonic and superconducting, they were able to run specific algorithms at a scale which would supposedly be too complex for a classical computer to accomplish.

For comparison, Google’s Sycamore system is a 53-qubit system and, according to the Chinese research team, it can only use the superconducting paradigm.

Background: uh, when did we start calling this stuff “quantum primacy?” I’ve been covering quantum computing for years now and this is a new one by me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen the odd scholarly article suggesting the term over the more popular “quantum supremacy.” But I thought we’d all decided that “quantum advantage” was the proper term because most experts agree that quantum computers will never truly replace classical ones, but augment them instead.

Anyhoo, quantum “primacy” is basically the ability for a quantum system to perform a feat that a classical one either couldn’t or would take an absurd amount time such as 30 trillion years to complete.

And, most famously, Google and NASA “leaked” (big air quotes on that one) that the Search giant’s “Bristlecone” system had achieved quantum supremacy over classical computers back in 2019.

But IBM, the owner of the classical supercomputer that Google and NASA claimed its systems had beaten, rebutted these claims in a blog post:

In the paper, it is argued that their device reached “quantum supremacy” and that “a state-of-the-art supercomputer would require approximately 10,000 years to perform the equivalent task.”

We argue that an ideal simulation of the same task can be performed on a classical system in 2.5 days and with far greater fidelity. This is in fact a conservative, worst-case estimate, and we expect that with additional refinements the classical cost of the simulation can be further reduced.

To this day there are plenty of tech “experts” who only tell the Google/NASA side of that episode.

And that brings us to 25 October, 2021, and the news out of China.

What’s the deal? Is it real? Quantum physicist Barry Sanders, the director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the University of Calgary, seems to be over the Moon concerning this news.

Writing for APS Physics, they said:

The two major results by the … group push experimental quantum computing to far larger problem sizes, making it much harder to find classical algorithms and classical computers that can keep up. The results take us further toward trusting claims that we have indeed reached the age of computational quantum primacy.

Sanders goes on to recognize the debate over quantum advantage, even mentioning the IBM and Google beef. But they seem pretty convinced this is the real deal and, evidently, base their observations on the idea that two paradigms are better than one.

But are they really? The types of algorithms being run aren’t particularly useful in the everyday world outside of a research lab. They’re essentially really giant math problems that can be made exponentially more difficult.

According to the Chinese researchers’ paper, their systems achieved primacy based on their estimates that they could run algorithms in minutes that would take the world’s fastest supercomputers 10,000 years.

That’s the same thing Google said about IBM’s supercomputer.

Quick take: “Quantum primacy” is a made up buzz-term without any real merit. We haven’t reached a point where the world’s declared a dead-end to classical computing nor have we maxed-out our collective ability to tune, tweak, and optimize algorithms.

This means anyone claiming to be able to run an algorithm that would take a classical system 10,000 years to run in seconds is usually engaging in what I like to call “hyperbole by omission.”

Sure, the quantum computer might be able to run an algorithm that could take a classical system 10,000 years to run. But the chances are pretty good that one of the many organizations with a supercomputer are going to clap back within the next couple of weeks with a counterpoint on optimization just like IBM did.

And one imagines Google has every incentive to debunk the idea that China’s completely eclipsed their alleged accomplishments. Let’s just wait and see what happens shall we?

It does bear mentioning that, quantum primacy claims aside, this is incredible research. This paper almost surely represents a major breakthrough in quantum computing. And, once the dust all settles, it’ll be interesting to see where the team goes from here.

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