A quantum mechanical resonator
Jeremy Kahn

Any day now, Google is expected to achieve quantum supremacy—the use of a quantum computer to solve a problem that even the most advanced supercomputer can't unravel. That milestone, which Google has said it will reach by year-end, will no doubt be greeted with headlines proclaiming the dawn of the quantum computing age. Prepare for lots of stories about how quantum computing will soon do everything from inventing wonderful new pharmaceuticals and almost-magical new materials (good) to rendering obsolete all existing public-key encryption (not so good).

There's plenty of momentum. Earlier this month, Intel Corp. researchers unveiled a superconducting chip for quantum computers. The news follows several other advances in quantum computing over the past two years—from tech big boys like International Business Machines Corp., and Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., as well as Canada's D-Wave Systems Inc., the only company to sell a commercial quantum computer (it has sold four) and startups like Rigetti. Google itself just released software to make it easier for chemists and material scientists to use the quantum machines it and others have built.

Investors are getting excited. In June, Blue Yard Capital, a venture capital firm based in Berlin, held a conference on quantum computing in Munich that drew many other investors and large enterprises hoping to cash in on the new technology. Several other VCs I've spoken to in the past few weeks have also bragged about their plans to get in early on what seems like the bleeding edge of computer science.

But some fear that rather than a moment of triumph, Google's quantum supremacy announcement may backfire. They fret that the search giant's PR machine and the journalistic catnip of the phrase will lead to inflated expectations about what the technology can do—and result in inevitable disillusionment when those expectations are dashed. (To be fair, Google didn't coin the term quantum supremacy; John Preskill, a CalTech researcher did. But there's no denying Google's marketing muscle is helping to popularize it.)

"If you had never heard that phrase before, you would think that we had entered a time when a quantum computer will do everything better than an ordinary computer, and that is far from the case," says Simon Benjamin, a professor of quantum technologies at the University of Oxford. "We cannot put a quantum computer on a table and have it do something useful that other computers can't do." In fact, not only can today's quantum computers not exceed the performance of conventional supercomputers, for many tasks they actually perform worse than a standard laptop.

Scientists study enriched silicon, used in quantum computing — Photo: Mike Thewalt

Classical computers use tiny silicon transistors to process data in a binary form called a bit, which is either a 0 or 1. Quantum computers, in contrast, process information in quantum bits, or qubits. A qubit—there are lots of different ways to design them, but most involve superconducting materials that have to be cooled to temperatures below those found in deep space—take advantage of quantum mechanics to do some mind-bending stuff. For instance, they can be both a 0 and 1 at the same time. In a classical computer each bit functions independently from the others, but in a quantum computer, a qubit's status depends on the status of other qubits. These properties, in theory, give a quantum computer exponentially more power.

The problem is the quantum computers we've built so far simply aren't very big. D-Wave's latest has 2,048 qubits and it says it is working on a 4,000 qubit model—but the machine is really only good for solving optimization problems. Google will demonstrate quantum supremacy using a machine that has either 49 or 50 qubits, according to spokeswoman Charina Choi. That's just big enough to do something a standard computer can't. (Or so everyone thought until last week, when IBM, perhaps seeking to move the goalposts on its rival, published a paper claiming it managed to simulate a 49-qubit system on a conventional machine.) Even so, it it isn't big enough, Benjamin says, to do anything most people would consider useful. (Google has strongly hinted that it will use a problem from quantum computing itself to demonstrate quantum supremacy.)

And there's another problem with quantum computers. Qubits are inherently fragile—they can't remain in a quantum state for long (for qubits made of superconductors, we're talking tens of microseconds; for those using trapped ions, the record is 10 minutes.) As qubits degrade, errors creep into their calculations—the more qubits, the more errors. These errors can be corrected, either with additional qubits or with software, but doing so can consume so much computing power that it negates the advantage of using a quantum computer in the first place. (Microsoft Corp. is working on a radically different design for a quantum computer that is inherently less error-prone, but it is based on sub-atomic particles that some physicists aren't convinced even exist and it is likely to be a decade before that machine, if it even works, is available commercially.)

So, for most applications, traditional computers still have a significant edge and likely will for years to come. Even those bullish on technology, including Google itself, think it will be another decade before either error-corrected or error-free quantum computing is possible. Benjamin fears that this decade-long gap is wide enough to be a black hole for investors' cash—and that if enough VCs lose enough money, quantum computing could experience a backlash similar to the "AI Winters' that hobbled artificial intelligence research in the 1970s and again in the 1990s.

Benjamin says he doesn't want to denigrate Google's achievement. If the company can get its quantum computer to do something a standard one can't, it will still be an important milestone. "It deserves to be written about and celebrated that we are into uncharted territory," he says. But, rather than supremacy, Benjamin says it would be more accurate to describe Google's imminent breakthrough as quantum inimitability. Then again, as Benjamin admits, that just doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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