Such a device could help address climate change and food scarcity, or break the Internet. Will the U.S. or China get there first?
On the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California, between the orchards and the ocean, sits an inconspicuous warehouse, its windows tinted brown and its exterior painted a dull gray. The facility has almost no signage, and its name doesn’t appear on Google Maps. A small label on the door reads “Google AI Quantum.” Inside, the computer is being reinvented from scratch.
In September, Hartmut Neven, the founder of the lab, gave me a tour. Neven, originally from Germany, is a bald fifty-seven-year-old who belongs to the modern cast of hybridized executive-mystics. He talked of our quantum future with a blend of scientific precision and psychedelic glee. He wore a leather jacket, a loose-fitting linen shirt festooned with buttons, a pair of jeans with zippered pockets on the legs, and Velcro sneakers that looked like moon boots. “As my team knows, I never miss a single Burning Man,” he told me.
In the middle of the warehouse floor, an apparatus the size and shape of a ballroom chandelier dangled from metal scaffolding. Bundles of cable snaked down from the top through a series of gold-plated disks to a processor below. The processor, named Sycamore, is a small, rectangular tile, studded with several dozen ports. Sycamore harnesses some of the weirdest properties of physics in order to perform mathematical operations that contravene all human intuition. Once it is connected, the entire unit is placed inside a cylindrical freezer and cooled for more than a day. The processor relies on superconductivity, meaning that, at ultracold temperatures, its resistance to electricity all but disappears. When the temperature surrounding the processor is colder than the deepest void of outer space, the computations can begin.
Classical computers speak in the language of bits, which take values of zero and one. Quantum computers, like the ones Google is building, use qubits, which can take a value of zero or one, and also a complex combination of zero and one at the same time. Qubits are thus exponentially more powerful than bits, able to perform calculations that normal bits can’t. But, because of this elemental change, everything must be redeveloped: the hardware, the software, the programming languages, and even programmers’ approach to problems.
On the day I visited, a technician—whom Google calls a “quantum mechanic”—was working on the computer with an array of small machine tools. Each qubit is controlled by a dedicated wire, which the technician, seated on a stool, attached by hand.
The quantum computer before us was the culmination of years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. It also barely functioned. Today’s quantum computers are “noisy,” meaning that they fail at almost everything they attempt. Nevertheless, the race to build them has attracted as dense a concentration of genius as any scientific problem on the planet. Intel, I.B.M., Microsoft, and Amazon are also building quantum computers. So is the Chinese government. The winner of the race will produce the successor to the silicon microchip, the device that enabled the information revolution.
A full-scale quantum computer could crack our current encryption protocols, essentially breaking the Internet. Most online communications, including financial transactions and popular text-messaging platforms, are protected by cryptographic keys that would take a conventional computer millions of years to decipher. A working quantum computer could presumably crack one in less than a day. That is only the beginning. A quantum computer could open new frontiers in mathematics, revolutionizing our idea of what it means to “compute.” Its processing power could spur the development of new industrial chemicals, addressing the problems of climate change and food scarcity. And it could reconcile the elegant theories of Albert Einstein with the unruly microverse of particle physics, enabling discoveries about space and time. “The impact of quantum computing is going to be more profound than any technology to date,” Jeremy O’Brien, the C.E.O. of the startup PsiQuantum, said recently. First, though, the engineers have to get it to work.
Imagine two pebbles thrown into a placid lake. As the stones hit the surface, they create concentric ripples, which collide to produce complicated patterns of interference. In the early twentieth century, physicists studying the behavior of electrons found similar patterns of wavelike interference in the subatomic world. This discovery led to a moment of crisis, since, under other conditions, those same electrons behaved more like individual points in space, called particles. Soon, in what many consider the most bizarre scientific result of all time, the physicists realized that whether an electron behaved more like a particle or more like a wave depended on whether or not someone was observing it. The field of quantum mechanics was born.
In the following decades, inventors used findings from quantum mechanics to build all sorts of technology, including lasers and transistors. In the early nineteen-eighties, the physicist Richard Feynman proposed building a “quantum computer” to obtain results that could not be calculated by conventional means. The reaction from the computer-science community was muted; early researchers had trouble getting slots at conferences. The practical utility of such a device was not demonstrated until 1994, when the mathematician Peter Shor, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, showed that a quantum computer could help crack some of the most widely used encryption standards. Even before Shor published his results, he was approached by a concerned representative of the National Security Agency. “Such a decryption ability could render the military capabilities of the loser almost irrelevant and its economy overturned,” one N.S.A. official later wrote.
Shor is now the chair of the applied-mathematics committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I visited him there in August. His narrow office was dominated by a large chalkboard spanning one wall, and his desk and his table were overflowing with scratch paper. Cardboard boxes sat in the corner, filled to capacity with Shor’s scribbled handiwork. One of the boxes was from the bookseller Borders, which went out of business eleven years ago.
Shor wears oval glasses, his belly is rotund, his hair is woolly and white, and his beard is unkempt. On the day I met him, he was drawing hexagons on the chalkboard, and one of his shoes was untied. “He looks exactly like the man who would invent algorithms,” a comment on a video of one of his lectures reads.
An algorithm is a set of instructions for calculation. A child doing long division is following an algorithm; so is a supercomputer simulating the evolution of the cosmos. The formal study of algorithms as mathematical objects only began in the twentieth century, and Shor’s research suggests that there is much we don’t understand. “We are probably, when it comes to algorithms, at the level the Romans were vis-à-vis numbers,” the experimental physicist Michel Devoret told me. He compared Shor’s work to the breakthroughs made with imaginary numbers in the eighteenth century.
Shor can be obsessive about algorithms. “I think about them late at night, in the shower, everywhere,” he said. “Interspersed with that, I scribble funny symbols on a piece of paper.” Sometimes, when a problem is especially engrossing, Shor will not notice that other people are talking to him. “It’s probably very annoying for them,” he said. “Except for my wife. She’s used to it.” Neven, of Google, recalled strolling with Shor through Cambridge as he expounded on his latest research. “He walked right through four lanes of traffic,” Neven said. (Shor told me that both of his daughters have been diagnosed with autism. “Of course, I have some of those traits myself,” he said.)
Shor’s most famous algorithm proposes using qubits to “factor” very large numbers into smaller components. I asked him to explain how it works, and he erased the hexagons from the chalkboard. The key to factoring, Shor said, is identifying prime numbers, which are whole numbers divisible only by one and by themselves. (Five is prime. Six, which is divisible by two and by three, is not.) There are twenty-five prime numbers between one and a hundred, but as you count higher they become increasingly rare. Shor, drawing a series of compact formulas on the chalkboard, explained that certain sequences of numbers repeat periodically along the number line. The distances between these repetitions grow exponentially, however, making them difficult to calculate with a conventional computer.
Shor then turned to me. “O.K., here is the heart of my discovery,” he said. “Do you know what a diffraction grating is?” I confessed that I did not, and Shor’s eyes grew wide with concern. He began drawing a simple sketch of a light beam hitting a filter and then diffracting into the colors of the rainbow, which he illustrated with colored chalk. “Each color of light has a wavelength,” Shor said. “We’re doing something similar. This thing is really a computational diffraction grating, so we’re sorting out the different periods.” Each color on the chalkboard represented a different grouping of numbers. A classical computer, looking at these groupings, would have to analyze them one at a time. A quantum computer could process the whole rainbow at once.
The challenge is to realize Shor’s theoretical work with physical hardware. In 2001, experimental physicists at I.B.M. tried to implement the algorithm by firing electromagnetic pulses at molecules suspended in liquid. “I think that machine cost about half a million dollars,” Shor said, “and it informed us that fifteen equals five times three.” Classical computing’s bits are relatively easy to build—think of a light switch, which can be turned either “on” or “off.” Quantum computing’s qubits require something like a dial, or, more accurately, several dials, each of which must be tuned to a specific amplitude. Implementing such precise controls at the subatomic scale remains a fiendish problem.
Still, in anticipation of the day that security experts call Y2Q , the protocols that safeguard text messaging, e-mail, medical records, and financial transactions must be torn out and replaced. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration announced that it was moving toward new, quantum-proof encryption standards that offer protection from Shor’s algorithm. Implementing them is expected to take more than a decade and cost tens of billions of dollars, creating a bonanza for cybersecurity experts. “The difference between this and Y2K is we knew the actual date when Y2K would occur,” the cryptographer Bruce Schneier told me.
In anticipation of Y2Q , spy agencies are warehousing encrypted Internet traffic, hoping to read it in the near future. “We are seeing our adversaries do this—copying down our encrypted data and just holding on to it,” Dustin Moody, the mathematician in charge of U.S. post-quantum encryption standards, said. “It’s definitely a real threat.” (When I asked him if the U.S. government was doing the same, Moody said that he didn’t know.) Within a decade or two, most communications from this era will likely be exposed. The Biden Administration’s deadline for the cryptography upgrade is 2035. A quantum computer capable of running a simple version of Shor’s algorithm could appear as early as 2029.
At the root of quantum-computing research is a scientific concept known as “quantum entanglement.” Entanglement is to computing what nuclear fission was to explosives: a strange property of the subatomic world that could be harnessed to create technology of unprecedented power. If entanglement could be enacted at the scale of everyday objects, it would seem like a magic trick. Imagine that you and a friend flip two entangled quarters, without looking at the results. The outcome of the coin flips will be determined only when you peek at the coins. If you inspect your quarter, and see that it came up heads, your friend’s quarter will automatically come up tails. If your friend looks and sees that her quarter shows heads, your quarter will now show tails. This property holds true no matter how far you and your friend travel from each other. If you were to travel to Germany—or to Jupiter—and look at your quarter, your friend’s quarter would instantaneously reveal the opposite result.
If you find entanglement confusing, you are not alone: it took the scientific community the better part of a century to begin to understand its effects. Like so many concepts in physics, entanglement was first described in one of Einstein’s Gedankenexperiments. Quantum mechanics dictated that the properties of particles assumed fixed values only once they were measured. Before that, a particle existed in a “superposition” of many states at once, which were described using probabilities. (A famous thought experiment, proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, imagined a cat trapped in a box with a quantum-activated vial of poison, the cat superpositioned in a state between life and death.) This disturbed Einstein, who spent his later years formulating objections to the “new physics” of the generation that had succeeded him. In 1935, working with the physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, he revealed an apparent paradox in quantum mechanics: if one took the implications of the discipline seriously, it should be possible to create two entangled particles, separated by any distance, that could somehow interact faster than the speed of light. “No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,” Einstein and his colleagues wrote. In subsequent decades, however, the other predictions of quantum mechanics were repeatedly verified in experiments, and Einstein’s paradox was ignored. “Because his views went against the prevailing wisdom of his time, most physicists took Einstein’s hostility to quantum mechanics to be a sign of senility,” the historian of science Thomas Ryckman wrote.
Mid-century physicists focussed on particle accelerators and nuclear warheads; entanglement received little attention. In the early sixties, the Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, working alone, reformulated Einstein’s thought experiment into a five-page mathematical argument. He published his results in the obscure journal Physics Physique Fizika in 1964. During the next four years, his paper was not cited a single time.
In 1967, John Clauser, a graduate student at Columbia University, came across Bell’s paper while paging through a bound volume of the journal at the library. Clauser had struggled with quantum mechanics, taking the course three times before receiving an acceptable grade. “I was convinced that quantum mechanics had to be wrong,” he later said. Bell’s paper provided Clauser with a way to put his objections to the test. Against the advice of his professors—including Richard Feynman—he decided to run an experiment that would vindicate Einstein, by proving that the theory of quantum mechanics was incomplete. In 1969, Clauser wrote a letter to Bell, informing him of his intentions. Bell responded with delight; no one had ever written to him about his theorem before.
Clauser moved to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, where, working with almost no budget, he created the world’s first deliberately entangled pair of photons. When the photons were about ten feet apart, he measured them. Observing an attribute of one photon instantly produced opposite results in the other. Clauser and Stuart Freedman, his co-author, published their findings in 1972. From Clauser’s perspective, the experiment was a disappointment: he had definitively proved Einstein wrong. Eventually, and with great reluctance, Clauser accepted that the baffling rules of quantum mechanics were, in fact, valid, and what Einstein considered a grotesque affront to human intuition was merely the way the universe works. “I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics,” Clauser said, in 2002.
But Clauser had also demonstrated that entangled particles were more than just a thought experiment. They were real, and they were even stranger than Einstein had thought. Their weirdness attracted the attention of the physicist Nick Herbert, a Stanford Ph.D. and LSD enthusiast whose research interests included mental telepathy and communication with the afterlife. Clauser showed Herbert his experiment, and Herbert proposed a machine that would use entanglement to communicate faster than the speed of light, enabling the user to send messages backward through time. Herbert’s blueprint for a time machine was ultimately deemed unfeasible, but it forced physicists to start taking entanglement seriously. “Herbert’s erroneous paper was a spark that generated immense progress,” the physicist Asher Peres recalled, in 2003.
Ultimately, the resolution to Einstein’s paradox was not that the particles could signal faster than light; instead, once entangled, they ceased to be distinct objects, and functioned as one system that existed in two parts of the universe at the same time. (This phenomenon is called nonlocality.) Since the eighties, research into entanglement has led to continuing breakthroughs in both theoretical and experimental physics. In October, Clauser shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work. In a press release, the Nobel committee described entanglement as “the most powerful property of quantum mechanics.” Bell did not live to see the revolution completed; he died in 1990. Today, his 1964 paper has been cited seventeen thousand times.
At Google’s lab in Santa Barbara, the objective is to entangle many qubits at once. Imagine hundreds of coins, arranged into a network. Manipulating these coins in choreographed sequences can produce astonishing mathematical effects. One example is Grover’s algorithm, developed by Lov Grover, Shor’s colleague at Bell Labs in the nineties. “Grover’s algorithm is about unstructured search, which is a nice example for Google,” Neven, the founder of the lab, said. “I like to think about it as a huge closet with a million drawers.” One of the drawers contains a tennis ball. A human rooting around in the closet will, on average, find the ball after opening half a million drawers. “As amazing as this may sound, Grover’s algorithm could do it in just one thousand steps,” Neven said. “I think the whole magic of quantum mechanics can essentially be seen here.”
Neven has had a peripatetic career. He originally majored in economics, but switched to physics after attending a lecture on string theory. He earned a Ph.D. focussing on computational neuroscience, and was hired as a professor at the University of Southern California. While he was at U.S.C., his research team won a facial-recognition competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. He started a company, Neven Vision, which developed the technology used in social-media face filters; in 2006, he sold the company to Google, for forty million dollars. At Google, he worked on image search and Google Glass, switching to quantum computing after hearing a story about it on public radio. His ultimate objective, he told me, is to explore the origins of consciousness by connecting a quantum computer to someone’s brain.
Neven’s contributions to facial-analysis technology are widely admired, and if you have ever pretended to be a dog on Snapchat you have him to thank. (You may thank him for the more dystopian applications of this technology as well.) But, in the past few years, in research papers published in the world’s leading scientific journals, he and his team have also unveiled a series of small, peculiar wonders: photons that bunch together in clumps; identical particles whose properties change depending on the order in which they are arranged; an exotic state of perpetually mutating matter known as a “time crystal.” “There’s literally a list of a dozen things like this, and each one is about as science fictiony as the next,” Neven said. He told me that a team led by the physicist Maria Spiropulu had used Google’s quantum computer to simulate a “holographic wormhole,” a conceptual shortcut through space-time—an achievement that recently made the cover of Nature.
Google’s published scientific results in quantum computing have at times drawn scrutiny from other researchers. (One of the Nature paper’s authors called their wormhole the “smallest, crummiest wormhole you can imagine.” Spiropulu, who owns a dog named Qubit, concurred. “It’s really very crummy, for real,” she told me.) “With all these experiments, there’s still a huge debate as to what extent are we actually doing what we claim,” Scott Aaronson, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in quantum computing, said. “You kind of have to squint.” Nor will quantum computing replace the classical approach anytime soon. “Quantum computers are terrible at counting,” Marissa Giustina, a research scientist at Google, said. “We got ours to count to four.”
Giustina is one of the world’s leading experts on entanglement. In 2015, while working in the laboratory of the Austrian professor Anton Zeilinger, she ran an updated version of Clauser’s 1972 experiment. In October, Zeilinger was named a Nobel laureate, too. “After that, I got a bunch of pings saying, ‘Congratulations on winning your boss the Nobel Prize,’ ” Giustina said. She talked with some frustration about a machine that may soon model complex molecules but for now can’t do basic arithmetic. “It’s antithetical to what we experience in our everyday lives,” she said. “That’s what’s so annoying about it, and so beautiful.”
The main problem with Google’s entangled qubits is that they are not “fault-tolerant.” The Sycamore processor will, on average, make an error every thousand steps. But a typical experiment requires far more than a thousand steps, so, to obtain meaningful results, researchers must run the same program tens of thousands of times, then use signal-processing techniques to refine a small amount of valuable information from a mountain of data. The situation might be improved if programmers could inspect the state of the qubits while the processor is running, but measuring a superpositioned qubit forces it to assume a specific value, causing the calculation to deteriorate. Such “measurements” need not be made by a conscious observer; any number of interactions with the environment will result in the same collapse. “Getting quiet, cold, dark places for qubits to live is a fundamental part of getting quantum computing to scale,” Giustina said. Google’s processors sometimes fail when they encounter radiation from outside our solar system.
In the early days of quantum computing, researchers worried that the measurement problem was intractable, but in 1995 Peter Shor showed that entanglement could be used to correct errors, too, ameliorating the high fault rate of the hardware. Shor’s research attracted the attention of Alexei Kitaev, a theoretical physicist then working in Moscow. In 1997, Kitaev improved on Shor’s codes with a “topological” quantum-error-correction scheme. John Preskill, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, spoke of Kitaev, who is now a professor at the school, with something approaching awe. “He’s very creative, and he’s technically very deep,” Preskill said. “He’s one of the few people I know that I can call, without any hesitation, a genius.”
I met Kitaev in his spacious office at Caltech, which was almost completely empty. He was wearing running shoes. After spending the day thinking about particles, Kitaev told me, he walks for about an hour to clear his mind. On hard days, he might walk for longer. A few miles north of Caltech sits Mt. Wilson, where, in the nineteen-twenties, Edwin Hubble used what was then the world’s largest telescope to deduce that the universe was expanding. “I’ve been on Mt. Wilson maybe a hundred times,” Kitaev said. When a problem is really tough, Kitaev skips Mt. Wilson, and instead hikes nearby Mt. Baldy, a ten-thousand-foot peak that is often covered in snow.
Quantum computing is a Mt. Baldy problem. “I made a prediction, in 1998, that the computers would be realized in thirty years,” Kitaev said. “I’m not sure we’ll make it.” Kitaev’s error-correction scheme is one of the most promising approaches to building a functional quantum computer, and, in 2012, he was awarded the Breakthrough Prize, the world’s most lucrative science award, for his work. Later, Google hired him as a consultant. So far, no one has managed to implement his idea.
Preskill and Kitaev teach Caltech’s introductory quantum-computing course together, and their classroom is overflowing with students. But, in 2021, Amazon announced that it was opening a large quantum-computing laboratory on Caltech’s campus. Preskill is now an Amazon Scholar; Kitaev remained with Google. The two physicists, who used to have adjacent offices, today work in separate buildings. They remain collegial, but I sensed that there were certain research topics on which they could no longer confer.
In early 2020, scientists at Pfizer began producing hundreds of experimental pharmaceuticals intended to treat Covid-19. That July, they synthesized seven milligrams of a research chemical labelled PF-07321332, one of twenty formulations the company produced that week. PF-07321332 remained an anonymous vial in a laboratory refrigerator until September, when experiments showed that it was effective at suppressing Covid-19 in rats. The chemical was subsequently combined with another substance and rebranded as Paxlovid, a drug cocktail that reduces Covid-19-related hospitalizations by some ninety per cent. Paxlovid is a lifesaver, but, with the assistance of a quantum computer, the laborious process of trial and error that led to its development might have been shortened. “We are just guessing at things that can be directly designed,” the venture capitalist Peter Barrett, who is on the board of the startup PsiQuantum, told me. “We’re guessing at things which our civilization entirely depends on—but that is by no means optimal.”
Fault-tolerant quantum computers should be able to simulate the molecular behavior of industrial chemicals with unprecedented precision, guiding scientists to faster results. In 2019, researchers predicted that, with just a thousand fault-tolerant qubits, a method for producing ammonia for agricultural use, called the Haber-Bosch process, could be accurately modelled for the first time. An improvement to this process would lead to a substantial decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions. Lithium, the primary component of batteries for electric cars, is a simple element with an atomic number of three. A fault-tolerant quantum computer, even a primitive one, might show how to expand its capacity to store energy, increasing vehicle range. Quantum computers could be used to develop biodegradable plastics, or carbon-free aviation fuel. Another use, suggested by the consulting company McKinsey, was “simulating surfactants to develop a better carpet cleaner.” “We have good reason to believe that a quantum computer would be able to efficiently simulate any process that occurs in nature,” Preskill wrote, a few years ago.
The world we live in is the macroscopic scale. It is the world of ordinary kinetics: billiard balls and rocket ships. The world of subatomic particles is the quantum scale. It is the world of strange effects: interference and uncertainty and entanglement. At the boundary of these two worlds is what scientists call the “nanoscopic” scale, the world of molecules. For the most part, molecules behave like billiard balls, but if you zoom in close enough you begin to notice quantum effects. It is at the nanoscopic scale that researchers expect quantum computing to solve its first meaningful problems, in pharmaceuticals and materials design, perhaps with just a few hundred fault-tolerant qubits. And it is in this discipline—quantum molecular chemistry—that analysts expect the first real money in quantum computing to be made. Quantum physics wins the Nobel. Quantum chemistry will write the checks.
The potential windfall from licensing royalties has excited investors. In addition to the tech giants, a raft of startups are trying to build quantum computers. The Quantum Insider, an industry trade publication, has tallied more than six hundred companies in the sector, and another estimate suggests that thirty billion dollars has been invested in developing quantum technology worldwide. Many of these businesses are speculative. IonQ , based in College Park, Maryland, went public last year, despite having almost no sales. Researchers there compute with qubits obtained using the “trapped ion” approach, arranging atoms of the rare-earth element ytterbium into a tidy row, then manipulating them with a laser. Jungsang Kim, IonQ’s C.T.O., told me that his ion traps maintain entanglement better than Google’s processors, but he admitted that, as more qubits are added, the laser system gets more complicated. “Improving the controller, that’s kind of our sticking point,” he said.
At PsiQuantum, in Palo Alto, engineers are making qubits from photons, the weightless particles of light. “The advantage of this approach is that we use preëxisting silicon-fabrication technology,” Pete Shadbolt, the company’s chief scientific officer, said. “Also, we can operate at somewhat higher temperatures.” PsiQuantum has raised half a billion dollars. There are other, weirder approaches. Microsoft, building on Kitaev’s work, is attempting to construct a “topological” qubit, which requires synthesizing an elusive particle in order to work. Intel is trying the “silicon spin” approach, which embeds qubits in semiconductors. The competition has led to bidding wars for talent. “If you have an advanced degree in quantum physics, you can go out into the job market and get five offers in three weeks,” Kim said.
Even the most optimistic analysts believe that quantum computing will not earn meaningful profits in the next five years, and pessimists caution that it could take more than a decade. It seems likely that a lot of expensive equipment will be developed with little durable purpose. “You walk down the hall at the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, and you see a mercury delay line,” Shadbolt said, referring to an obsolete contraption from the nineteen-forties that stored information using sound waves. “I love thinking about the guys who built that.”
It is difficult, even for insiders, to determine which approach is currently in the lead. “ ‘Pivot’ is the Silicon Valley word for a near-death experience,” Neven said. “But if one day we see that superconducting qubits are outcompeted by some other technology, like photonics, I would pivot in a heartbeat.” Neven actually seemed relieved by the competition. His laboratory is expensive, and quantum computing is the kind of moon-shot project that thrived during the era of low interest rates. “Because of the present financial situation, startups in our field have more difficulties finding investors,” Devoret, the experimental physicist, told me. But, as long as Amazon is investing in quantum computing, it’s a good bet that Google will keep funding it, too. There is also the tacit support of the state—the U.S. intelligence apparatus has made quantum decryption a priority, regardless of market fluctuations. In fact, Neven’s stiffest competition comes not from the private sector but from the Chinese Communist Party. John Martinis, a former head of quantum computing at Google, said, “In terms of making high-quality qubits, one could say the Chinese are in the lead.”
At the campuses of the University of Science and Technology of China, four competing quantum-computing technologies are being developed in parallel. In a paper published in Science, in 2020, a team led by the scientists Lu Chao-Yang and Pan Jian-Wei announced that their processor had solved a computational task millions of times faster than the best supercomputer. Pan is one of the most daring researchers in quantum entanglement. In 2017, his team ran an experiment that entangled two photons at an observatory in Tibet, and transmitted one of them to an orbiting satellite. The scientists then transferred attributes from a third photon on Earth to the one in space, using the technique of “quantum teleportation.”
Lu and I spoke by video earlier this year. He joined the call late and was covered in sweat, having sprinted home from a mandatory Covid test. Lu immediately began debunking claims made by his competitors, and even claims made about his own effort. One widely reported figure stated that China has invested fifteen billion dollars in developing a quantum computer. “I have no idea how that was started,” Lu said. “The actual money is maybe twenty-five per cent of that.”
Jiuzhang, Lu’s photonic quantum computer, is undoubtedly one of the world’s fastest, but Lu has repeatedly chided his colleagues for overhyping the technology. On our call, he pulled up a video clip of a woman attempting to arrange ten kittens in a line. “Here is the problem we face,” he said. A kitten scurried to the back and the woman raced to grab it. “You want to control multiple qubits with high precision,” Lu said, “but they should be very well isolated from the environment.” As the woman replaced the first kitten, several others fled.
Lu cautioned that quantum computers faced stiff competition from ordinary silicon chips. The earliest electronic computers, from the forties, had to beat only humans. Quantum computers must prove their superiority to supercomputers that can run a quintillion calculations per second. “We see fairly few quantum algorithms where there is proof of exponential speedup,” he said. “In many cases, it’s not clear that it wouldn’t be better to use a regular computer.” Lu also disputed Martinis’s contention that China was making the best qubits. “Actually, I think Google’s in the lead,” he said.
Neven agreed. “Sometime in the next year, I think we will make the first fully fault-tolerant qubit,” he said. From there, Google plans to scale up its computing effort by chaining processors together. Adjacent to the warehouse I visited was a second, bigger space, where sunshine streamed into a dusty construction site. There, Google plans to build a computer that will require a freezer as large as a one-car garage. A thousand fault-tolerant qubits should be enough to run accurate simulations of molecular chemistry. Ten thousand fault-tolerant qubits could begin to unlock new findings in particle physics. From there, researchers could start to run Shor’s alg
orithm at full power, exposing the secrets of our era. “It’s quite possible that I will die before it happens,” Shor, who is sixty-three, told me. “But I would really like to see it happen, and I think it’s also quite possible that I will live long enough to see it.”
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