The ultra-powerful machine has the potential to disrupt everything from science and medicine to national security.
There is no quick explanation of quantum mechanics, but the Cliffs Notes version goes something like this: Scientists have proved that atoms can exist in two states at once, a phenomenon called superposition. A single atom, for example, can be in two locations at the same time.
Superposition gets even stranger as it scales. Because everything is made of atoms, some physicists theorize that entire objects can exist in multiple dimensions, allowing—as Neven suggested—for the possibility of parallel universes.
Scientists have proved the theory repeatedly and conclusively.
These laws are behind the next revolution in computing. In a small lab outside Santa Barbara, Calif., stocked with surfboards, wetsuits and acoustic guitars, Neven and two dozen Google physicists and engineers are harnessing quantum mechanics to build a computer of potentially astonishing power.
A reliable, large-scale quantum computer could transform industries from AI to chemistry, accelerating machine learning and engineering new materials, chemicals and drugs.
“If this works, it will change the world and how things are done,” says physicist Vijay Pande, a partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has funded quantum-computing start-up Rigetti Computing.
Others, especially those in academia, take a more nuanced view.
“It isn’t just a faster computer of the kind that we’re used to. It’s a fundamentally new way of harnessing nature to do computations,” says Scott Aaronson, the head of the Quantum Information Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “People ask, ‘Well, is it a thousand times faster? Is it a million times faster?’ It all depends on the application. It could do things in a minute that we don’t know how to do classically in the age of the universe. For other types of tests, a quantum computer probably helps you only modestly or, in some cases, not at all.”
Companies and governments are scrambling to prepare for what some call Y2Q, the year a large-scale, accurate quantum computer arrives, which some experts peg at roughly 2026. When that happens, our most closely guarded digital secrets could become vulnerable.
For now, Neven’s team in Southern California is racing to finish the 49-qubit chip that they hope will carry them to quantum supremacy and into a new frontier of technology, where computers leverage unthinkably complex natural laws rather than converting the world into ones and zeros.
“There is no transistor in this computer,” Neven says. “It’s a completely different beast. It’s a native citizen of the multiverse.”