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Inside Big Tech’s High-stakes Race for Quantum Supremacy


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A cryostat in Google's quantum computing lab.

Quantum computers are on the verge of changing everything.

Credit: Jason Koxvold

On June 4, 2019, Sergio Boixo gathered his colleagues on Google's quantum research team together for an urgent meeting. The group, split across two sites in southern California, had spent the better part of a decade trying to build a working quantum computer – a revolutionary type of device that works according to the laws of quantum mechanics.

For months, Google had been inching closer to a milestone known as quantum supremacy – the point at which a quantum computer can accomplish something beyond even the world's best classical supercomputers. But there was a problem.

Boixo, a tall Spaniard with a greying beard, had designed an experiment that was meant to be virtually impossible for a classical computer to solve, but easy for Google's Sycamore quantum chip. The simulations looked good, and by the end of April 2019, Google seemed on the verge of achieving quantum supremacy. But then, on May 31, a parallel team inside Google discovered that the task was actually a million times easier for a classical computer than had been thought. Their quantum chip wasn't going to be able to beat that. "I was panicking a little bit," Boixo says. "But everyone was very understanding."

Seven months later, Boixo – smartly dressed in chinos and a pink sweater – is sitting on a picnic bench outside Google's Santa Barbara lab, joking with his colleagues about the brief setback. Anthony Megrant, a quantum hardware engineer who fell into the field after a stint in the U.S. army, had returned from paternity leave in early June to find the lab in a fluster. "I was like, really? I've been gone a week!" he laughs.

 

From Wired (U.K.)
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