Op-Ed: Does Google's 72-qubit computer mean quantum computing is coming?

Posted Mar 6, 2018 by Tim Sandle
Google has taken another step forward on the path to developing the first quantum computer, with progress made to constructing a 72-qubit computer. This follows on from IBM and Intel who have also announced new chips. Question is, when will we see them?
Researchers from Google are testing a quantum computer with 72 quantum bits.
Researchers from Google are testing a quantum computer with 72 quantum bits.
Google Research Blog
Quantum computers remain hidden inside the world’s leading research centers. However, the race to develop a fully commercial model is intensifying, with major technological companies vying with each other to be first. Google has taken the lead with tests underway on a quantum computer with 72 quantum bits (qubits).
The new Google development was announced at the March 2018 meeting of the American Physical Society. The significance of the development is that Google’s previous announcement was for a nine-qubit chip. This pales in comparison to the 72-qubit development.
The reason why there is such a great interest in quantum computing is because computers based on the quantum physics can, theoretically, solve puzzles no other computer can, since quantum entities behave unlike anything in a larger realm. Furthermore, such computers can solve problems that can be solved by current computers far more quickly.
The fundamental element of a quantum computer is the qubit. With conventional computers, a bit can take on a value of 0 or 1; whereas a qubit can be 0, 1 or a combination of the two (the quantum super­position). By representing 0 and 1 simultaneously, quantum computers should be able to encode a wealth of information and by performing parallel computation, this speeds up any solution. However, this theory has yet to be tested in real-life situations with real problems.
The problem is a true quantum computer is not yet a reality. The models built, for the select few luckily enough to see them, cannot do anything practical. It remains still uncertain whether the claims made by the big technology companies will hold up. There's an irony that the future of quantum computing, like the quantum state itself, remains uncertain.
Nonetheless the news about the new 72-qubit computer, announced by Google physicist Julian Kelly, is of interest for the fledgling field. The current gold standard is regarded by physicists as a computer of more than 50 qubits. The computer has been dubbed Bristlecone, a nod to the pinecone like arrangement of the qubits inside the computer.
Google Bristlecone
Google Bristlecone
According to the physicist Professor John Martinis of University of California, who is working with Google: “We’re just starting testing. From what we know so far, we’re very optimistic.” Google hopes the computer will have applications in quantum simulation, optimization, and machine learning.
If things go to plan, a public demonstration should take place later in 2018. The Google news follows on from IBM declaring it is developing a 50-qubit quantum computer and Intel announcing that a 49-qubit test chip is underway.
It's no accident, however, that these three announcements arrived at about the same time. The race to develop a quantum computer is as much about publicizing a company as it is about (eventually) showcasing the product. Each major player is keen to show it has the edge in terms of quantum mindshare.