According to foreign media reports, in a paper published in Nature recently, Google researchers claimed to have obtained the “quantum advantage” for the first time (also known as “quantum hegemony”). Their 53-bit quantum computer (named Sycamore) took 200 seconds to complete a computing task. According to Google, the computing task will cost the world’s fastest supercomputer for 10,000 years. (Part of this paper was disclosed and reported online last month)
This time the calculation has almost no practical use – it spits out a random number. It was chosen just to show that Sycamore can indeed work like a quantum computer. Quantum computers with practical uses have been around for many years, and the technical barriers are huge. Even so, they may only beat traditional computers on certain tasks.
However, Google’s research is still an important milestone – Google CEO Pachai compared it to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 12 seconds.
For a project that may take 10 years or more to get a return, the outside world wants to know why Google has spent 13 years.
The following is an interview with a foreign media.
Media: You have a quantum computer to accomplish a very narrow, special task. What do you need to demonstrate quantum advantages more broadly?
Pichai: You need to build a fault-tolerant quantum computer with more qubits, so you can apply it in a wider range and perform computational tasks for longer, allowing you to run more complex algorithms. But you know, if you want to make a breakthrough in any field, you need to start somewhere. Borrow a metaphor – the Wright brothers. The first aircraft only flew for 12 seconds, no practical application, but it shows the possibility of the aircraft being able to fly.
Media: Many companies have quantum computers. For example, IBM has a lot of such facilities online that people can use in the cloud. Why can’t their machines be done like Google?
Pichhai: The main thing I want to comment on is why the Google team can do this. This requires a lot of system engineering – working together on multiple aspects of the task.
From a system engineering point of view, this is very complicated. You actually start with a wafer, and a team actually etches the gates, makes the gates, and then processes the stacks together so that artificial intelligence can be used to simulate and understand the best results.
Media: The last sentence of Google’s research paper says, “We are only a creative algorithm out of a valuable recent application.” What does this application mean?
Pichhai: The real excitement of quantum is that the universe works fundamentally in a quantum way, so you will be able to understand nature better. It’s still too early, but the highlight of quantum mechanics is the ability to simulate molecular and molecular processes, which I think is the strongest place. Drug invention is a good example. Or fertilizer production – the Haber process produces 2% of the world’s carbon emissions. In nature, essentially the same process is done more efficiently.
Media: So, how far do you think an application like the Haber process can be improved?
Pichhai: I think ten years later. It will take us a few more years to extend and build quantum computers with good enough performance. Other potential applications for this technology may include designing better batteries. Anyway, you are dealing with chemical issues. A better understanding of this technology is also the direction of our investment.
Media: Some people say that quantum computers may be like nuclear fusion: there may be a breakthrough in the next 50 years. This seems to be an esoteric research project. Why is Google CEO so excited about this?
Pichhai: If it weren’t for the development we’ve seen in computing for years, Google won’t be here today. Moore’s Law enables us to expand our computing power to serve billions of users of a wide range of products.
So in essence, we consider ourselves to be a deep computer science company. At the end of its cycle, quantum computing is one of the many factors we will continue to make in the computing arena.
Another reason we are excited about this technology is that, with a simple molecule, caffeine (with 24 atoms) has countless atomic states. We know that we can’t even use classical calculations to understand the basic structure of molecules. So when I look at climate change, when I look at drugs, that’s why I believe that one day quantum computing will advance those areas.
Media: In 2012, when you saw an artificial intelligence learning the picture of a cat alone, you described in a certain media that you have a “premonition”. “This thing will magnify and may reveal how the universe works. It is the most important thing we do as human beings. Is quantum computing feeling equally important?
Pichhai: That’s right. Being able to actually manipulate the qubits in the lab and put them in a superimposed state is also a big moment for me, because in my previous opinion, this is how nature works. It opens up a whole new range of possibilities that existed until today.
Media: It may take a long time to reach a quantum system that can do something serious. How do you manage patience in a company that is used to rapid development?
Pichay: You know, I am with Hartmut Nevin, who leads the quantum team with chief hardware scientist John Martini. I mentioned that I quit my studies in materials science. I used to study high temperature superconductors. This is 26 years ago, I was sitting in the lab, I thought, “Wow, it takes a lot of patience to complete.” I don’t think I have that kind of patience. I respect the people in the team who have long adhered to this journey. But almost all of the fundamental breakthroughs work like this, and you need that long-term vision to build it.
The reason I am excited about such a milestone is that although things take a long time, it is these milestones that have contributed to this area of progress. When the “Deep Blue” supercomputer defeated Gary Kasparov, it was 1997. Time to fast forward to 2016, Alpha dog defeated Li Shishi in the Go game, you can look at it and say, “Wow, time is really long.” But every milestone rewards those who do this work and attracts a new generation. People enter this field. Human beings are progressing like this.
As far as my previous system engineering point of view is concerned, we are advancing on many layers of the vector sub-computation stack. Therefore, we are pushing for progress, which will be used in many different ways. For example, we built our own data center, which allowed us to build a TPU (tensor processing unit, which is a dedicated chip for the Google Deep Learning Framework TensorFlow), which made our algorithm run faster. So this is a virtuous circle.
One of the great benefits of working on innovative technology research is that you are valuable even if you fail, and even mid-term milestones have other applications. So yes, you are right, we must have patience. But there is a lot of real satisfaction along the way.
Media: How much do you currently invest in quantum computing?
Pichai: This is a relatively small team. But it builds on all the investments we’ve made over the years at all levels of Google. It builds on the company’s many years of research and the application work we do on this basis.
Media: Can you talk about the difference in methods between Google and IBM? First, IBM has a bunch of quantum machines that are placed in the cloud for people to program, and you do it as an internal research project.
Pichai: IBM offers it as a cloud device, which is very good and attracts other developers. I think we as a team are always working to make sure we prove to ourselves and the community that you can cross this important milestone in quantum dominance.
Media: IBM also said that the term “quantum advantage” is misleading because it means that quantum computers will eventually do better than traditional computers, and in fact they must work together on different aspects of the problem. They accuse Google of exaggerating the word.
Pichhai: My answer to this is that this is a technical term for art. People in the technology circle fully understand the significance of this milestone.
Media: But the focus of the debate is that the public may think that this is a sign that quantum computers have defeated traditional computers.
Pichhai: I mean, this is no different from celebrating artificial intelligence. Some people confuse it with ordinary artificial intelligence. That’s why I think it’s important to publish a paper on quantum dominance.
It is important that those who explain these things help the public understand where we are and how you will apply traditional computing to most of the problems you need in the world. Using a traditional computer will still be a reality in the future.
Media: Artificial intelligence creates business for Google on many levels, and it enters services such as machine translation and web search. You provide artificial intelligence tools to people through your cloud. You provide an artificial intelligence framework, TensorFlow, which allows people to build their own tools. You also provide specialized chips that people can use to run their tools. Do you think quantum computing will eventually spread to Google’s business?
Pichai: Certainly. If you take a step back, we invest in artificial intelligence and develop artificial intelligence, but then we will know that it is useful for all of our businesses.
Finally, in all the practical applications you talked about, we not only use artificial intelligence technology for ourselves, we provide it to customers around the world, we care about the popularity of artificial intelligence technology, and so does quantum computing.
Media: What do you think quantum computing means for artificial intelligence itself? For example, if you combine quantum computing with artificial intelligence, can it help us solve the obstacles of artificial intelligence?
Pichhai: I think this will be a very powerful symbiosis. Both fields are in the early stages of research. Artificial intelligence has exciting research topics in building larger models, more generalized models, and what computing resources are needed. I think artificial intelligence can speed up quantum computing, and quantum computing can speed up artificial intelligence. I think this is what we need and ultimately solve some of the toughest problems we face, such as climate change.
Media: You mentioned the popularization of new technologies. Google has encountered some ethical controversy about artificial intelligence – who should use these tools and how to use them. What have you learned from dealing with these issues, how does it affect your thinking about quantum technology?
Pichhai: It is very important to publish papers and contacts with academia at these stages. We work hard to get involved. We have published our comprehensive principles of artificial intelligence. If you take the field of artificial intelligence bias, I think we have published more than 75 research papers in the past few years. Therefore, we will rationalize our ethics and actively participate in research.
I think that regulation in some areas may make sense. We want to engage constructively and help develop the right regulations. Finally, there is a process of external participation and feedback. These are technologies that affect society. No company can figure out what is right. There is no magic bullet, but it is still too early. In the next 10 years, we must work together on all these issues.
Media: On the one hand, it is said that you will not develop artificial intelligence technology for certain purposes based on the principle of artificial intelligence. On the other hand, is there a contradiction in creating a platform for people to use artificial intelligence for any purpose they want?
Pichay: Artificial intelligence security is one of our most important ethical principles. You want to build and test a security system. This is inherent in our development process. If you are concerned that quantum systems will destroy cryptography over time, you need to develop better quantum cryptography. In the past, when we built search engines, we had to solve the spam problem.
The risks of these new technologies are clearly higher, but on the one hand the technical approach you adopt and on the other hand global governance and ethical agreements. You will need to reach a global framework to produce the results we want. We are committed to doing our best to help develop this technology, not only to be responsible, but also to use it to ensure safety. We will do this with other agencies.
Media: Are there other technologies that you are also very interested in now?
Pichhai: For me personally, there is a lot of potential for a better way to produce clean renewable energy. But I am very excited about the combination of all these technologies and how we actually apply them. In terms of health care, I think that in the next decade or so, we will be on the verge of breakthrough, which will be far-reaching. But I also want to say that artificial intelligence itself – the next generation of artificial intelligence breakthroughs, new algorithms, better generalized models, transfer learning, etc., is equally exciting for me.