Google says it has built a computer that is capable of solving problems that classical computers practically cannot. According to a report published in the scientific journal Nature, Google's processor, Sycamore, performed a truly random-number generation in 200 seconds. That same task would take about 10,000 years for a state-of-the-art supercomputer to execute.
The achievement marks a major breakthrough in the technology world's decadeslong quest to use quantum mechanics to solve computational problems. Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the company started exploring the possibility of quantum computing in 2006.
In classical computers, bits can store information as either a 0 or a 1 in binary notation. Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can be both 0 and 1. According to Google, the Sycamore processor uses 53 qubits, which allows for a drastic increase in speed compared with classical computers.
The report acknowledges that the processor's practical applications are limited. Google says Sycamore can generate truly random numbers without utilizing pseudo-random formulas that classical computers use.
Pichai called the success of Sycamore the "hello world" moment of quantum computing.
"With this breakthrough we're now one step closer to applying quantum computing to—for example—design more efficient batteries, create fertilizer using less energy, and figure out what molecules might make effective medicines," Pichai wrote.
IBM has pushed back, saying Google hasn't achieved supremacy because "ideal simulation of the same task can be performed on a classical system in 2.5 days and with far greater fidelity."
On its blog, IBM further discusses its objections to the term "quantum supremacy." The authors write that the term is widely misinterpreted.
"First because, as we argue above, by its strictest definition the goal has not been met," IBM's blog says. "But more fundamentally, because quantum computers will never reign 'supreme' over classical computers, but will rather work in concert with them, since each have their unique strengths."
News of Google's breakthrough has raised concerns among some people, such as presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, who believe quantum computing will render password encryption useless. Theoretical computer science professor Scott Aaronson refuted these claims on his blog, writing that the technology needed to break cryptosystems does not exist yet.
The concept of quantum computers holding an advantage over classical computers has dated back to the early 1980s. In 2012, John Preskill, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, coined the term "quantum supremacy."
Paolo Zialcita is an intern on NPR's News Desk.