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Opinion Bravo for Google’s ‘quantum supremacy.’ Here’s what needs to happen next.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai with a quantum computer in the company's research lab in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Handout/Reuters)

Chad Rigetti is the founder and chief executive of Rigetti Computing.

Google’s AI Quantum team announced Wednesday that it had reached an important milestone in quantum computing known as “quantum supremacy” — the point when quantum computers can perform a task that today’s supercomputers would be essentially incapable of handling.

Specifically, researchers said in the journal Nature they had used a chip with 53 superconducting qubits (the information-storing building blocks of a quantum computer) to complete a complex set of calculations in 200 seconds, versus a predicted benchmark time of 10,000 years for the world’s fastest supercomputer. Although the experimental results are not yet applicable to solving a practical problem, this is a landmark scientific achievement that signals the beginning of a new era in the computing industry.

Quantum computing is built on the principles of quantum mechanics, which describes nature at a very small scale. Because of this, quantum computers are very good at simulating the behavior of atoms and molecules. That quality opens doors for solving problems in drug discovery, efficient renewable energy, safer industrial materials and countless other realms. Quantum computers are also our best bet for improved modeling of complex systems, such as weather, communications networks or asset portfolios. These types of problems are often prohibitively hard for even the most powerful supercomputers.

Google’s demonstration marks the first time that quantum mechanical properties have been harnessed at a large-enough scale and with accurate-enough control to go beyond what traditional computing can do. However, much more work is needed in the next few years to extend and translate this computational power to solve practical and valuable problems.

While that journey will be complex, three essential things need to happen to get there.

First, better algorithms need to be developed that can harness the unique problem-solving properties of quantum computers. The development of these algorithms is in very early stages, but it is the most immediate opportunity for accelerated progress and further scientific breakthroughs. Potential users can drive this development of algorithms and applications by identifying the most promising areas within their organizations where quantum computing could be applied.

Second, convenient access to today’s quantum computers is essential for developing the new algorithms. It’s hard to test an algorithm if you can’t run it. Some companies, including IBM and my company, Rigetti Computing, that build processors with superconducting qubits have made these quantum computers available to users over the cloud. The more machines we can make available to users, the better the opportunity to catalyze a burgeoning U.S. industry around this technology.

Finally, because quantum computing will eventually have staggering capabilities, the United States must ensure that it maintains another kind of quantum supremacy: over rival nations. The United States has made significant efforts in the past two years to help advance quantum computing through new legislation and funding. The National Quantum Initiative, signed into law late last year, provides more than $1.2 billion to advance the research and development of quantum technologies. And the appointment on Tuesday of two quantum computing leaders to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology signals how important this technology is to national security and economic growth.

The pace of progress in quantum computing will depend on improvements in the manufacturability and reliability of quantum chips and other specialized components. Many lessons can be adapted from the existing semiconductor industry, but quantum technologies present fresh challenges that the industry is moving steadily to address. But government has a role to play in advancing the technology. Policy should aim at ensuring U.S. companies have every possible advantage to remain global leaders in quantum computing while also protecting the technology from global threats and competitors.

One way to achieve this is to separate customer access for computing — which can be delivered with little risk over the cloud — from access to core technology and components, whose export is best limited to close partners and allies. This will ensure that the international scientific collaborations that have brought us to this point continue to flourish while also translating U.S.-led scientific breakthroughs into economic leadership.

The physicists who formulated quantum mechanics in the early 20th century could never have predicted what it would lead to. Similarly, the scientific achievement of quantum supremacy and the ability to compute with quantum states opens a new frontier in computing technology. Even those of us working in the quantum computing industry cannot imagine what innovations and insights lie ahead.

As with the development of the transistor and integrated circuit in the 20th century, quantum computing might well give rise to a vibrant industry and become a critical driver of economic development in the 21st century. The goal in the United States should be to make it happen here first. Google’s researchers have made a good start.

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