With quantum race on, Google rushing to prove new computer’s super speed

With quantum race on, Google rushing to prove new computer’s super speed

Researchers at Mountain View, California-based firm believe their device can calculate in one second the same amount of data a supercomputer can process in one day

This photo from January 3, 2013, shows Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
This photo from January 3, 2013, shows Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

A group of researchers at US tech giant Google are working on a quantum computer, which they hope to show as soon as next year, can calculate in one second the same amount of data it takes a supercomputer to process in one day.

“The chip has been made and we have been testing it and we’re seeing if we can get this to work,” said John Martinis, a pioneer in quantum technology research, who in 2014 joined Google with his team to head up its quantum-hardware effort. The aim of this research at Google is to build the first useful quantum computer.

“If we can get this to work then we can show that the quantum computer can do some kind of powerful computation,” he said in an interview with The Times of Israel at Google’s R&D center in Tel Aviv.

The Google researchers are working on what they call a “quantum supremacy experiment” in which they will test the results of their quantum computer against the results provided by a supercomputer, to see if the new device works as expected.

John Martinis, a pioneer in quantum technology research, who in 2014 joined Google with his team to head up their quantum-hardware effort; Tel Aviv, Dec. 10, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The experiment they hope to hold will run on a quantum computer made up of 50 to 70 quantum bits (qubit), he said. The key of the experiment will be to see if at those speeds, the computer will be able to provide accurate results.

“We don’t want to talk about dates” for the experiment, he said. “But we are working hard — we hope to do something next year and hopefully early next year. We are working on it hard right now, today. Things are going very well.”

Eventually, he said, the idea is to develop a 1 million qubit device, but that is “going to take some time.”

Martinis is in Israel for a Hebrew University of Jerusalem conference on the future of quantum technology and its commercial applications taking place on Tuesday. The conference aims to see how innovations stemming from academia can move the field of quantum technologies forward.

Quantum physics, discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, describes the properties of microscopic particles. Within the scientific community, the study of quantum physics is considered as revolutionary as the study of nanotechnology. The US, China and European countries are rushing to develop technologies based on quantum principles, pouring billions of dollars in research efforts and vying for a leading spot in the emerging field.

Quantum physics is different from regular physics. One of the key principles of this exciting science is the superposition principle, which says that unlike regular items, which can be in only one location at any point of time, tiny particles can be both here and there at the same time.

This phenomenon is also called the particle-wave duality.

A Merck researcher does work on quantum materials (PRNewsFoto/Merck KGaA)

The main challenge is to transform the theoretical and experimental knowledge that has been accumulated in academia into useful technology, Emanuele Dalla Torre, a member of Bar-Ilan University’s center for quantum technologies, said in an interview in May.

Quantum physics is “inspiring” he said, but researchers don’t really know yet how much they actually understand about the field. The challenge, he said, is to “take this idea and make a device or technology out of this. That is the buzz.”

There are three leading technologies that stem from quantum physics, he explained. The first is quantum sensing, for precision measurements using quantum particles. You use this application when you need to be extremely accurate with timing. A quantum precision device has already been developed — namely, the atomic clock, which uses an electron transition frequency as a standard for keeping time. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system uses an atomic clock as part of its systems.

The second technology is quantum communications, for transfer of communication for files and data. In August last year, China, which has invested billions of dollars in the field, became the first country to implement quantum technology in its Jinan Project, said to be the world’s first un-hackable computer network.

The holy grail

The third technology is considered the “holy grail” of quantum technologies: quantum computing, in which computers would be created using quantum particles.

Using the principle of superposition, quantum computing would allow computers to run calculations in parallel — at the same time — thus speeding up the calculation process.

If a high-speed quantum computer can indeed be built, it will be able to factorize large numbers and do complicated mathematical calculations at very high speeds. This would also enable users of these computers to crack the RSA protocols, the cryptosystem that is widely used to secure data transmission on the internet, and access this information.

Companies and governments worldwide have been pouring funds into the field, focusing on quantum computing, with IBM, Google and Microsoft all establishing outfits to study the technology.

Illustrative image of the revolution that Quantum computing could bring (marinhristov; iStock by Getty Images)

“The basic idea is that with a quantum computer you might be able to make a supercomputer that is way, way more powerful than any classical supercomputer that exists right now,” said Martinis. This would allow for computations and data processing in fields of chemistry or artificial intelligence, for example, at levels that are far more advanced than today.

To get the technology out of academia and into industry, there should be many more collaborations between the two, he said.

“My view on this is that progress in the field has definitely been enough and progressive enough to justify companies like Google” entering the field. “When people do research there’s no guarantees it is going to work but we definitely have the results to justify working hard and spending the time and money to get it to work.”

Where does Israel fit into this?

In Israel, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education said last year that it would invest tens of millions of dollars in quantum technology research in its five-year plan.

In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced with great pomp a project that would enhance Israel’s intelligence gathering capacities through the use of quantum technology.

Both Bar-Ilan University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are hoping to become national leaders in the field of quantum science. Bar -lan University in June last year opened its center for research and development of quantum technology, the Quantum Entanglement in Science and Technology (QUEST) Impact center.

“There is very solid research in quantum in Israel and we want to now make sure that it gets translated into commercial products, by getting the industry in on this as well,” Prof. Nadav Katz, who heads quantum research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said in an interview. Israel already has created an edge in the field with regard to quantum sensing, he said, for example in creating atomic clock devices.

Prof. Nadav Katz, who heads quantum research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, speaking at The Future of Quantum Technology Conference in Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 2018 (Noam Moreno)

However, given the huge investments and funds poured by the US and Chinese governments into the field already, the head of the Israel Innovation Authority, Aharon Aharon, questioned in a recent interview the relative advantage Israel could have in quantum computing. The Innovation Authority boosts the local tech system and technology segments to programs of grants and subsidies for budding firms.

“We see that in quantum computing the whole world is investing with tens of billions of dollars. Can Israel catch up? The answer is — apparently not,” he said. The area in which Israel has a relative advantage, he said, is in the field of sensors.

The Innovation Authority has set up a consortium to promote the development of generic technologies in quantum sensors, with a budget of about NIS 45 million ($12 million), and it is also setting up a national program on the subject in collaboration with the Planning and Budgeting Committee at the Council for Higher Education and the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure at the Defense Ministry.

“Even if Israel lacks the massive funding the other nations are injecting into the field, mainly in quantum computing and communications, it can still make a difference,” said Hebrew University’s Katz.

“We have the asset of high-quality human capital,” he said. Israel has managed to transform itself into a tech powerhouse even if Silicon Valley is much bigger and with much better funds, he said. That principle should remain true when it comes to quantum technologies.

“We already have an edge when it comes to sensors,” he said. “But we can and should make a difference also when it comes to quantum computing and quantum communications. That is why we are holding this conference.”

What is needed is for the industry to start paying attention to this field, he said, and for increased collaboration between researchers and industry and increased funding in the sector.

Venture capital funds in Israel are also paying attention. “We are deeply interested in quantum and are actively looking at investments in the different parts of the quantum stack,” Eden Shochat, a partner at Aleph VC in Tel Aviv.

Eden Shochat, Aleph venture capital fund (Courtesy)

“Israeli startups have the same kind of opportunities that global startups have in the field,” he said.

Most of the focus by multinationals and startups today has been on qubits. “That said, computer platforms have many other, and historically more lucrative components” like control, operating systems and component interconnects, “where Israeli companies have excelled. For the new generation of companies, that’s probably a better focus area for local startups.”

What makes Israel’s high-tech sector unique is the combination of Israel’s strong academia, large army budgets dedicated to applied technology, and a vibrant startup ecosystem, he said. “The key would be to drive more collaboration between these, similar to what naturally exists in the cyber” sphere, he said.

The Future of Quantum Technology Conference  is sponsored and organized by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, Yissum – The Technology Transfer Company of The Hebrew University, and The Quantum Science Information Center at Hebrew University.

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