What is quantum supremacy?

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Marianna Marcelline
Science & Tech Editor

Marianna Marcelline asks if Glasgow’s latest project will change the world.

Packed into a one-square centimetre silicon chip, Google’s quantum CPU may be small in size, but certainly not in potency. The 54-qubit computer known as “Sycamore” contains an array of microscopic cables enabling it to perform calculations at monumentally fast speeds – so fast, Google claims, that other state-of-the-art supercomputers would take 10,000 years to compute a calculation that the Sycamore processor can do in just 200 seconds.

This staggering claim has been met with a wide-eyed reaction amongst those in technology fields and beyond. Of course, some scepticism-fuelled comments have been targeted at the Google project, largely by competitor firms including IBM; but the reality is that the development of Google’s quantum processor marks a milestone in computer advancement and is a signal for ever-increasing technological change.

Encryption is the first, most vulnerable target of quantum supremacy. In order to guarantee unique security for operations including banking and crypto-currency, encryption relies on numerical factoring and other mathematical formulas. In the face of quantum supremacy’s extreme calculating abilities, encryption could be regarded as a significantly weak security measure.

However, quantum supremacy could, in fact, be utilised to do the exact opposite. It could be cleverly used to beef-up the security measures already provided by encryption to provide an almost-impossible-to-tear-down form of protection for sensitive data. This could mean that crypto-currencies, government data and any sort of personal data we send over the internet, could be far less at risk of being exposed to forgery or theft.

What’s more, Google’s Sycamore processor could further boost our understanding and experimentation within the realm of machine learning. Artificial intelligence is continuously growing stronger and being used more and more to speed up manual and data-based tasks in all fields of work. With quantum supremacy showing just how quickly and powerfully certain computations can be performed, the application of this within AI could seriously change the way technology interacts with us in our day-to-day lives.

Ultimately, the Sycamore processor can only do one thing – solve a calculation that proves the randomness of numbers produced by a random number generator. But it’s the immense speed at which this tiny device can do this that makes it so incredibly impressive.

If utilised correctly, quantum supremacy will be a serious force for change and will undoubtedly revolutionise the world.