In an event that was compared to the first flight of the Wright brothers, Google announced on Wednesday that it managed to solve in minutes a problem that would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to solve.

“For those of us working in science and technology, it’s the ‘hello world’ moment we’ve been waiting for -- the most meaningful milestone to date in the quest to make quantum computing a reality,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote.

IBM has cast doubt on Google’s claims of quantum supremacy -- the point at which a quantum computer can solve problems a traditional computer can’t -- and the company said that the task of Google’s quantum computer could actually be accomplished in 2.5 days by a classical system, not 10,000 years. 

But if Google is hyping its accomplishment, it has reason to do so. It’s competing with the likes of IBM and Microsoft in the quantum computing race. And they’re not the only ones.

Two of China’s tech giants have also made quantum computing a top priority, hoping to catch up in the field: Alibaba and Baidu.

Alibaba is probably best known as the company behind the dominant Chinese ecommerce site Taobao, but the company also provides cloud services and has been working on quantum computing for years. It opened its first research center in 2015.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba)

Alibaba CTO and president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Jeff Zhang revealed the Hanguang 800 chip this September. (Picture: Alibaba)

The Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory, founded by Alibaba’s cloud division and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was the first of its kind in Asia. But it was already behind when it started. The same year it was founded, scientists at Google claimed that they devised a quantum algorithm 100 million times faster than a comparable classical algorithm.

Undeterred, Alibaba poured US$15 billion into next-gen technology research, including AI and quantum technology. By 2018, Alibaba launched its quantum computing cloud, featuring a quantum processor with 11 quantum bits (qubits) of power. It was the second-most powerful quantum computer publicly available at the time after IBM’s 20-qubit machine.

Shi Yaoyun, chief quantum technology scientist at Alibaba Cloud, said at the time that the service is for experimenting with processors and developing quantum tools and software. The company also started investing in chip technology, important both for AI and quantum tech.

Not wanting to be outdone, Baidu launched its own quantum computing research center in 2018. The lab is helmed by Professor Duan Runyao, who said he wants to turn Baidu’s Quantum Computing Institute into a world-class institution by 2023.

Duan also plans to gradually integrate quantum computing into other aspects of Baidu’s business, which like Google covers everything from search engines to autonomous vehicles.

Baidu has been testing its self-driving project Apollo, but it’s a relative newcomer in the quantum technology game. (Picture: Baidu)

Baidu’s quantum computing efforts have yet to be published, but others in China’s science community are making important strides into researching quantum computing. 

The Chinese government has been investing heavily in the area by building a US$10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Technology in the city of Hefei.

In 2017, China had nearly twice as many patent filings as the United States for quantum technology, according to market analysis firm Patinformatics. The country also launched the first quantum satellite, named Micius, which enabled a quantum-encrypted video call between Beijing and Vienna. It used a combination of satellite transmission and fiber-optic lines designed to transmit quantum-encrypted communication.

So far, Western companies are still winning when it comes to adding the most qubits to their computers.

Google’s quantum supremacy experiment was run on a 54-qubit processor named “Sycamore,” but the company unveiled a 72-qubit chip last year. IBM announced that it will soon make a 53-qubit quantum computer available to its clients.

But not everything is about qubits. Experts point out that in order to calculate computing tasks correctly, qubits need to work perfectly. In reality, their work is often full of errors that have to be corrected, and the more qubits there are, the harder it is to correct them.

In its rebuttal, IBM quotes researcher John Peskill, who claims that the very term quantum supremacy is an overhyped way to report on the complicated science of quantum technology. Google’s recent achievement is significant is because it shows that quantum computing is hard, but not ridiculously hard, Peskill said, meaning that a “plethora of quantum technologies are likely to blossom in the decades ahead.”

Google may have gotten there first. But Chinese companies are racing to join them.