25 November 2019

Sergio Boixo: a milestone in the quantum era

A few days ago, Google surprised the world by announcing that it had managed to get a quantum computer to do a calculation in a few minutes that would take a conventional machine years. The story included a big name: Sergio Boixo, chief scientist of the Quantum Computing Theory group at Google, and a headline published in all the media outlets, the achievement of quantum supremacy.

The quick calculating, data management and increased security is known as quantum supremacy. This pioneering success by Sergio Boixo announces that it is now a reality and means that we are approaching a new technological revolution and a paradigm shift in the fields of knowledge and science.

Sergio Boixo holds a degree in computer engineering from the Complutense University of Madrid. He subsequently graduated in Philosophy and Mathematics from the Spanish National University of Distance Education and, in 2003, he began his doctorate in Theoretical physics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (United States) thanks to a ”la Caixa” fellowship.

Despite the fact that he is now highly sought-after by all the media, ”la Caixa” Fellows Blog was able to ask him a few questions and, of course, we congratulated him on this great news.

Q. In addition to performing calculations that are now impossible, quantum computers will have an impact that is difficult to foresee. What applications can be developed in the future that are now unthinkable?

A. I believe that in the years to come, quantum computers will be used in quantum simulations, given that they are really difficult for classic computers. For example, if we could simulate quantum chemistry, we could do things like designing better batteries, which would benefit the environment because it would result in electric cars and an energy network that are more efficient. We could also reduce the energy required to produce fertilisers; at present, nitrogen fixation in the production of fertilisers generates more than 2% of the world´s CO2 emissions. In the future, quantum computing could also help with optimization problems, automatic learning and other applications. Quantum computing is a completely new computing capacity, and we are very enthusiastic about the new possibilities that will open up.

Q. Once it has been shown that a quantum computer works better than a supercomputer, what will be the next step in your research?

A. Our demonstration consisted of carrying out a very specialised calculation; there is still a lot of work to do to develop practical applications. The first practical application that we are exploring consists of generating verifiable random numbers, an idea proposed by Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the University of Texas. Random numbers have important applications in computer security. Other members of our team are working to improve the algorithms of quantum simulation with the aim of finding other practical applicants before we have quantum computers with error correction. Our long-term goal is indeed to build quantum computers with error correction, but we still need ten years to do that. Therefore, another line of research consists of carrying out experiments on error correction, in order to check that we are still making progress in the right direction.

Undoubtedly, we are experiencing an historic moment and there are years of challenges ahead for research into quantum computing.