IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Google claims quantum computer breakthrough. IBM pushes back.

An experimental quantum processor performed a calculation in minutes that would've taken an ordinary supercomputer thousands of years, Google said.
Image: A handout picture shows Pichai and Sank with one of Google's Quantum Computers in the Santa Barbara lab
Sundar Pichai and Daniel Sank with one of Google's Quantum Computers in the Santa Barbara lab, Calif. in October 2019.Google / via Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO — Google said it has achieved a breakthrough in quantum computing research, saying an experimental quantum processor has completed a calculation in just a few minutes that would take a traditional supercomputer thousands of years.

The findings, published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature, show that "quantum speedup is achievable in a real-world system and is not precluded by any hidden physical laws," the researchers wrote.

Quantum computing is a nascent and somewhat bewildering technology for vastly sped-up information processing. Quantum computers might one day revolutionize tasks that would take existing computers years, including the hunt for new drugs and optimizing city and transportation planning.

The technique relies on quantum bits, or qubits, which can register data values of zero and one — the language of modern computing — simultaneously. Big tech companies including Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are avidly pursuing the technology.

"Quantum things can be in multiple places at the same time," said Chris Monroe, a University of Maryland physicist who is also the founder of quantum startup IonQ. "The rules are very simple, they're just confounding."

Scientists and engineers at Google maintaining a refrigerator that houses the chip used to demonstrate the quantum supremacy experiment. Clockwise from top: Anthony Megrant, Ted White, Andrew Dunsworth (far right), Jaime Yao, Brian Burkett, Ping Yeh.Google

Google's findings, however, are already facing pushback from other industry researchers. A version of Google's paper leaked online last month and researchers caught a glimpse before it was taken down.

IBM quickly took issue with Google's claim that it had achieved "quantum supremacy," a term that refers to a point when a quantum computer can perform a calculation that a traditional computer can't complete within its lifetime. Google's leaked paper showed that its quantum processor, Sycamore, finished a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds — and that it would take the world's fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to do the same thing.

Research scientists Amit Vainsencher (front) and Ofer Naaman (back) at Google assembling and testing microwave cables to control qubits at ultra-low temperatures.Google

But IBM researchers say that Google underestimated the conventional supercomputer, called Summit, and said it could actually do the calculation in 2.5 days. Summit was developed by IBM and is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Google has not commented on IBM's claims.

Whether or not Google has achieved "quantum supremacy" or not may matter to competitors, but the semantics could be less important for the field of quantum research. What it does seem to indicate is that the field is maturing.

"The quantum supremacy milestone allegedly achieved by Google is a pivotal step in the quest for practical quantum computers," John Preskill, a Caltech professor who originally coined the "quantum supremacy" term, wrote in a column after the paper was leaked.

It means quantum computing research can enter a new stage, he wrote, though a significant effect on society "may still be decades away."

The calculation employed by Google has little practical use, Preskill wrote, other than to test how well the processor works. Monroe echoed that concern.

"The more interesting milestone will be a useful application," he said.___O'Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island.

Want more stories about technology?

Sign up for the MACH newsletter and follow NBC News MACH on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.