Sceptics also argue that Google has only solved a very narrow task

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Combining entanglement with superposition leads to exponential increases in computing power with each additional qubit.

The Sycamore processor designed by Google, a unit of Silicon Valley technology giant Alphabet, had 54 qubits arranged in a two-dimensional grid. In the experiment only 53 could be made to work – still enough to produce a successful result.

WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG TO GET HERE?

Physicists have been talking about quantum computing for over 30 years, but the challenges of making them work are daunting.

The qubits need to be cooled to just above absolute zero to reduce ‘noise’ – or vibration – that introduces errors into the calculations made by a quantum computer.

Google’s researchers, in solving the problem with a high degree of fidelity – or accuracy – can reasonably claim to have achieved a significant milestone, say physicists.

DOES THIS MEAN THAT OLD COMPUTERS ARE FINISHED?

Critics, including rival IBM , say Google is hyping its achievement and creating the misleading impression that quantum computers have effectively rendered all conventional computers obsolete.

By adding disk storage the Summit supercomputer – which is made by IBM – could have solved Google’s random number problem in at most 2-1/2 days, with greater accuracy, they say.

Sceptics also argue that Google has only solved a very narrow task, and that quantum computing is still a long way away from practical use. In the real world, quantum computers are likely to work in harness with classical computers, making use of their respective strengths.

SO WHAT’S NEXT?

Researchers from the Google AI research team see potential uses for quantum computing in fields such as machine learning, and materials science and chemistry. They admit, though, that still-greater accuracy will be needed to bring those use cases into the real world.

Cryptographers are, meanwhile, already preparing for the day when quantum computers might be used to crack the codes used, for example, to secure online access to bank accounts. So, even before quantum computing becomes widely used, ‘post-quantum cryptography’ is already here.

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