Google recently claimed “quantum supremacy” and has since been making waves on the Web. But what is it exactly, how does it work, and what does it all mean for computer users of the world?

Watch this video for a quick overview:

Quantum supremacy is not the title of the latest James Bond or Jason Bourne movie, and neither is it an alien race that is claiming superiority over humankind. The term was first coined by American theoretical physicist, John Preskill, in 2012. It describes that point when a quantum computer beats the best supercomputers at solving some sort of problem, thus ushering in the age of quantum physics in IT. In other words, it means that Google’s quantum computer was able to perform a calculation that would have been impossible to perform on a regular supercomputer in a reasonable amount of time.

What is a Quantum Computer?

In theory, a quantum computer can solve problems that would take traditional binary computers thousands of years to work on in mere minutes. These problems include really difficult tasks such as creating neural networks of the human brain and modeling weather systems and similar complex things.

Traditional computers work with binary data made up of zeroes (0) and ones (1). Quantum computers, on the other hand, work with what are called “quantum bits” or “qubits.” These qubits could be made up of zeros, ones, or both. Unlike binary digits, a qubit holds up to two bits of information. And this allows it to work with multiple problems simultaneously. This ability also allows a quantum computer to store huge amounts of data in a relatively small space.

What are Qubits Made of?

A binary computer’s bits are made of tiny electronic transistors. A qubit, meanwhile, is made of anything that exhibits quantum behavior. It could be an electron, an atom, or even a molecule.

Why is Quantum Supremacy a Big Deal?

For the guys at Google, proving that they have achieved quantum supremacy is a big deal because of a couple of reasons.

First, the accomplishment puts the company squarely at the forefront of emerging computing technology. They essentially ushered in the age of quantum computers, and this is indelibly recorded in the highly respected scientific journal, Nature. And then there’s the tremendous bragging rights, as reflected in headlines and discussions happening all over the Web.

Second, Google was able to prove that a quantum computer is indeed viable and can surpass the best that existing supercomputers have to offer. It is still very, very early in the game but this accomplishment ups the ante. 

It also proves that this once attractive theoretical concept can be realistically achieved. The Google quantum computer, dubbed “Sycamore,” really did nothing more than confirm that a random number generator was indeed generating random numbers. But Sycamore completed the task in a mere 200 seconds. The most powerful supercomputers would have needed around 10,000 years to do the exact same thing.

What Useful Things will Quantum Computers be Able to Do?

Traditional binary computers run into trouble when modeling real-world systems. Consider, for example, how some supercomputers can be off as much as 200% when modeling very simple molecules. That happens because no binary computer can ever cope with the computing demands of quantum systems.

A quantum computer, on the other hand, can easily code the rules of physics into how atoms interact. The ability to accurately render real-world models can be valuable to engineering, medicine, energy production, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and many more industries. 

Technically, supercomputers should also be able to solve these problems but it would take them much longer (in some cases, even thousands of years), and the results may be way off, as discussed earlier.

Who Else is Working on Quantum Computers?

Another bigwig in this field is IBM. In fact, the computer hardware giant disputed Google’s claim to quantum supremacy, providing evidence that the world’s most powerful supercomputer can nearly keep pace with Google’s new quantum machine. IBM argued that Google’s claim should be received “with a large dose of skepticism.”

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