Google scientists claim to have achieved a breakthrough in quantum computing research in a development that could change the world.
The team behind the project say an experimental quantum processor has completed a calculation in just a few minutes that would otherwise take a traditional supercomputer thousands of years.
They say the findings, published in the scientific journal Nature, show they have achieved quantum supremacy, which means the quantum computer did something a conventional computer could never do.
"Quantum speedup is achievable in a real-world system and is not precluded by any hidden physical laws," researchers wrote in the journal.
Quantum computing is an advanced computing technology that is still at a relatively early stage of development. However, the technology allows for vastly sped-up information processing, with quantum computers potentially having the ability to revolutionise tasks that would take existing computers years, such as the hunt for new drugs and optimising 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."
But Google is already facing industry criticism, with IBM disputing the claim that the tech giant had achieved the breakthrough and saying they underestimated the power of a conventional supercomputer.
A leaked paper last month showed that Google's 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.
But IBM researchers say the conventional supercomputer, called Summit, 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.
After the leak John Preskill, a Caltech professor who originally coined the "quantum supremacy" term, suggested that the news meant the field is maturing.
"The quantum supremacy milestone allegedly achieved by Google is a pivotal step in the quest for practical quantum computers," he wrote.
It means quantum computing research can enter a new stage 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.
Additional reporting by AP.
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