Apr 21, 2021 - Technology

A reality check for quantum computing's progress

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the pioneers of quantum computing warns that industry hype is getting ahead of actual performance.

Why it matters: Quantum holds the promise of revolutionizing computing. But there are still enormous hardware and software challenges that need to be overcome.

Driving the news: Last week the Association of Computing Machinery awarded its $250,000 ACM Prize to Scott Aaronson, a professor at the University of Texas, for his "groundbreaking contributions to quantum computing."

  • Aaronson helped develop the concept of quantum supremacy, a technical milestone that can only be achieved when a quantum device proves capable of solving a problem that no classical computer could solve in a reasonable amount of time.

Yes, but: Despite his technical bona fides — or perhaps because of them — Aaronson expressed skepticism about how far the quantum computing industry has come so far when it comes to achieving what it advertises.

  • "What's happened over the last decade is that there have been a tremendous number of claims about the more immediate things you can do with a quantum computer, like solve all these machine learning problems," says Aaronson.
  • "But these claims are about 90% bullsh*t."

Details: Aaronson argues that much of what quantum computing companies are doing can still be done as well or better on the best classical computers — which is precisely what happened after Google claimed quantum supremacy on a problem in 2019.

  • To Aaronson, quantum computing has yet to reach the transistor level — the equivalent of the second-generation of classical computers, which entered use in the mid-1950s.
  • "We are barely into the equivalent of vacuum tubes," he says.

The bottom line: Aaronson is still bullish on the long-term future of quantum computing hardware, which has seen "unbelievable progress over the last 20–25 years."

  • But to get further, he says, "you're going to need some revolutionary new development."

Read next: Will quantum computing ever live up to its hype?

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