Here’s what quantum supremacy does—and doesn’t—mean for computing

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Google has reportedly demonstrated for the first time that a quantum computer is capable of performing a task beyond the reach of even the most powerful conventional supercomputer in any practical time frame—a milestone known in the world of computing as “quantum supremacy.”

The ominous-sounding term, which was coined by theoretical physicist John Preskill in 2012, evokes an image of Darth Vader–like machines lording it over other computers. And the news has already produced some outlandish headlines, such as one on the Infowars website that screamed, “Google’s ‘Quantum Supremacy’ to Render All Cryptography and Military Secrets Breakable.” Political figures have been caught up in the hysteria, too: Andrew Yang, a presidential candidate, tweeted that “Google achieving quantum computing is a huge deal. It means, among many other things, that no code is uncrackable.”

Nonsense. It doesn’t mean that at all. Google’s achievement is significant, but quantum computers haven’t suddenly turned into computing colossi that will leave conventional machines trailing in the dust. Nor will they be laying waste to conventional cryptography in the near future—though in the longer term, they could pose a threat we need to start preparing for now.

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