Was that really a quantum leap by Google?

Two amazing things just happened.

The Washington Nationals took down star Houston Astros pitchers Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander on consecutive nights. And Google claims — somewhat controversially — it has proven the efficacy of quantum computing.

With baseball, you can see results with the unaided eye. The throw to third clearly arrived ahead of the foot of Jose Altuve. That Kurt Suzuki homer made a bang when it struck a metal sign.

With quantum computing, well, that’s the ultimate inside baseball techno-geek topic. Google claims, in this paper published in Nature, not that it built a quantum computer but rather that it achieved a “milestone on the path to full-scale quantum computing.” The experiment resulted in what it calls quantum supremacy.

As a layman I can visualize, roughly, the design of the experiment and what it showed. I urge you to read the paper for yourself. You’ll be hearing the word “qubit” a lot, although I haven’t yet seen it as a crossword puzzle clue. Just don’t take the term “quantum supremacy” to mean Google has a 10-million qubit processor running otherwise impossible algorithms. It simply means the experimenters have run a simulation they say show shows the quantum approach could potentially solve problems regular computers can’t.

Google researchers had partners. The paper lists no less than 77 authors. In the larger sense, Google’s work culminates years of collaboration among companies, academics and federal agencies. That’s the point of an op-ed in Fortune, of all places, by Michael Kratsios of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Oddly, the original paper was somehow leaked and posted on a NASA web site in September. But according to published reports it was quickly pulled down. Now that’s its out, critics are picking apart the quantum supremacy claim. For instance, a team at IBM questions the Google paper’s claim that its quantum processor did in seconds what a “classical” supercomputer would require 10,000 years to finish. The IBM guys say a properly calibrated simulation on a classical system would have taken only 2.5 days. Therefore, they say, Google has not in fact achieved quantum supremacy — that is, doing things a classical computer cannot.

The arguments get deeply technical, but come down to the notion that Google stacked its experiment for the most dramatic outcome. Competing scientists themselves will have to battle that one out.

Perhaps the real story here is that competing teams are actually playing with the idea of qubits — as opposed to classic 1-or-0 bits — to simulate calculations that at some point in the future we’ll perhaps have the machines to process. Cybersecurity people worry that whomever gets to quantum first — hopefully not the Chinese — will be able to crack 256-bit encryption instantly. In this and many other ways, quantum could revolutionize computing and therefore life. One federal technologist I asked, though, said it’s entirely possible quantum computing will never materialize in any practical sense.

The other day Quantas Airlines flew a Boeing jet on a 10,100-mile nonstop trip between New York City and Sydney, Australia. It took 19.5 hours. In 1927 the first non-stop transatlantic flight took just under 16 hours to go 1,890 miles. Quantas went five times the distance in 20 percent more time, let’s say. Not quite the exponential improvement that characterizes generations of information technology, but a world of real difference. The two U.K. pilots of the inter-war years had no passengers, no heat, and primitive navigation tools. They endured a frightening day of extreme discomfort during which they nearly lost their airplane. The Quantas flight had some 45 passengers, all comfortable and well-fed, and in no real danger.

Quantum computing, by contrast, could bring many orders of magnitude improvement in certain branches of computing. The IBM researchers say it will co-exist with, but not replace, classical computing. Just as long-range jets won’t replace the Metro for getting from Gallery Place to Navy Yard-Ballpark.

Maybe Google achieved quantum supremacy, maybe it didn’t. The debate, though, is important. And it shows by federal spending on basic and near-basic research matters. Quantum falls into that bucket of futures that carry little short term commercial potential yet require many minds and organizations to solve and have world-changing potential.

Go Nats!

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