On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into space. It had no other function than to show that we were able to put a controlled device in orbit, but even today we must thank that sphere with a sort of “whiskers” that emitted a simple “beep beep”: it became the basis of all Current telecommunications, from internet to GPS. Sixty-two years after that feat, Google made it official on October 25 that it had achieved quantum supremacy with a system that “only” does is generate patterns in a series of random numbers following a predetermined formula. It may seem that this does not have any practical application – although some uses in cybersecurity have already been demonstrated -, although the most surprising thing is that this equipment takes just 200 seconds to perform this task, when the most powerful of the classic supercomputers would use 10,000 years . And this, which today may sound as Russian as the name of the first satellite, is the basis of a whole technological revolution. The quantum computing.
Behind her is the name of Sergio Boixo. “Today is still an experimental science, but it will be a computational revolution in ten or twenty years,” he tells ABC by phone from Mountain View (California), the Google headquarters where he works. There, this Leonese occupies the position of chief scientist of quantum computing theory of the technological giant and he was the one who devised the practical demonstration that the promise of this disruptive technology was not just theory. «About four years ago I presented the idea to the team and it was accepted. In January of this year the first experimental data began to arrive and we saw that everything fit the theory. In May or June we finally had it ready. But it has been a very complex experiment that has taken a lot of time and work of colleagues, both inside and outside of Google ».
But according to Boixo, it really started for him when he heard being a university student about a budding field called quantum computing. “It was the theory that contradicted the extended thesis of Church-Turing, something that seemed almost crazy to me and I would never see.” The Church-Turing theory is the basis on which all computers work, whose language is the well-known “bits”: ones and zeros that, arranged in complex orders, give precise instructions so that our computer or mobile can do from simple Math operations to show videos of kittens online. However, quantum computing proposes a totally novel method by copying the way in which nature operates at microscopic scales, in the world of atoms, where particles can have several states at once.
“At that time, a teacher passed me the first studies,” explains Boixo. There were for the first time the now famous “qubits”, the language of quantum computing. Unlike bits, qubits can be ones and zeros simultaneously, such as quantum particles, so data processing increases exponentially. This makes it possible that, in effect, problems that classic computers take 10,000 years to solve, are clarified in just over three minutes. But in the nineties this was only a theory on paper.
But there are also other much more affordable and short-term debates in which philosophy is present, as in the ethical implications of the quantum revolution. In the era of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, in which private companies such as Google move billions of data, could such processing power pose a danger in bad hands? “Today is an experimental technology that does not have much to do with Big Data,” reassures Boixo. “It is better to think about what the first quantum processors will mean just like what the first graphics cards meant: at first they were used for videos and video games, but then it was seen that they have many other applications, such as in science.” Even so, Google has applied the same ethical principles that the multinational has used to develop other disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence. “The premise is only to create beneficial applications for the human being.”
Google is not the only private company that has invested in an experimental field such as quantum computing. IBM, Microsoft or Intel have also participated in the race to achieve quantum supremacy. There are even those who have denied it. This is the case of IBM, which was very critical of Google before even the magazine “Nature” published the final study. The direct rival of those of Mountain View assured that the milestone of quantum supremacy had not been achieved since its classic supercomputer, Summit, was able to do the same calculation in two and a half days – with margin to do it even faster – and that would make the conclusions in a magazine public imminently, an issue that, a month later, has not yet happened. «It is good that we all make proposals, but I want to emphasize that it is important to carry out the computational experiment and not just make a paper proposal. We have done both ”, shows Boixo bluntly.
At the moment, the Google team is very proud not only of the achievement, but of its reception in society. «We were surprised that people have really understood what the value of this experiment is. In the last two or three years I had the doubt of whether he was going to understand, but I think so and hence its repercussion. From here, it only remains to look forward. «The future is to make scalable technology, make them more powerful and with fewer errors. The goal is to create a universal fault-tolerant quantum computer, a system that has a million qubits – Google’s has 53 – and an error rate five times lower than the current one – which currently stands at 0.6%, but it triggers when introducing new qubits-. Actually this is a beginning, not an end ». The beginning of the quantum era.