In October, Google celebrated a breakthrough that CEO Sundar Pichai likened to the Wright brothers’ first flight. Company researchers in Santa Barbara, California, 300 miles from the Googleplex, had achieved quantum supremacy—the moment that a quantum computer performs a calculation impossible for any conventional computer.
That was both notable science and a chance for Google to show prominence in a contest among big tech companies, including IBM and Microsoft, to deliver the wild new power promised by quantum computing. The usually low-profile Pichai threw himself into marking the moment, penning a blog post, taking part in a rare media interview, and posting an Instagram photo of himself alongside the shiny machine that scored the result.
Just over a month later, Pichai was named CEO of Google parent Alphabet. But neither the company nor its quantum-happy boss have said much about another quantum computing team at Alphabet, at its secretive lab X.
X, formerly known as Google X, is dedicated to incubating “moonshot” technologies that might underpin new Google-scale businesses. Its small group of quantum researchers is not building its own quantum computing hardware. The group’s leader is more interested in creating new algorithms and applications to run on quantum computers, and building software libraries that allow conventional coders to use the exotic machines.
“Hardware’s very interesting [but] it’s really software that gets the majority of the value creation,” said Jack Hidary, the serial entrepreneur who leads X’s quantum research, in a November talk at Carnegie Mellon University. He pointed to how software companies such as Microsoft are collectively worth much more than the hardware manufacturers their products run on, even though it was advances in hardware that initially created the computing industry.
Google and rivals like IBM are investing in quantum computing because they believe it can catalyze major advances in many fields of science and industry, such as drug development and artificial intelligence.
Quantum computers are built out of devices called qubits, which encode data into quantum mechanical processes apparent only under carefully controlled conditions. The superconducting qubits that make up IBM’s and Google’s experimental quantum processors operate at temperatures colder than outer space. Groups of qubits can perform mathematical tricks conventional computers can’t by exploiting quantum phenomena that don’t have equivalents in everyday life, like the way quantum mechanical objects can become “entangled” such that what happens to one instantly affects another.
X declined to make Hidary or anyone else on his team, which also does research on artificial intelligence, available for an interview. A spokesperson, Aisling O’Gara, claimed Hidary’s group is a separate entity from X.
However, Hidary’s biography on a book he authored about “applied” quantum computing, published last year, says he and his team work at X on quantum algorithms and software libraries; they sit in the X building and report to the lab’s chief, Astro Teller.
“He’s working at X, there’s a small team there,” said Hartmut Neven, leader of Google’s quantum computing project, when asked about Hidary’s role during an October press event at the Santa Barbara lab to mark its quantum supremacy result. “We stay in close touch to make sure this stays nicely complementary.”
A neuroscientist by training, Hidary founded and took public the IT portal EarthWeb during the dotcom boom of the late ’90s. In 2013 he ran as an independent for mayor of New York City on a tech-centric platform that included, according to New York magazine, promising at one event that if he won “everyone gets a pair of Google Glasses.” He got 0.3 percent of the vote on Election Day and has been an adviser to X since at least 2016, joining Alphabet full time in 2018.
X is built around a portfolio of ambitious projects aimed at delivering blockbusting new technologies dubbed “moonshots.” Past examples include self-driving cars and stratospheric internet balloons, now separate Alphabet companies in their own right, and Google Glass, the ill-fated face computer that Hidary referenced on the mayoral stump. The lab typically reveals its projects only after years of work, with a nerdy demonstration like launching an internet balloon or robots that sort trash.
O’Gara of X said the lab “does not have a moonshot project in quantum.” But one Alphabet employee in Hidary’s group says on LinkedIn that he’s working on strategy for “quantum moonshots." X’s other quantum computing experts include Guifre Vidal, who was previously a faculty member at the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. He describes himself on Google Scholar as a senior research scientist at X, and has published papers with Hidary and others on his team listing his affiliation with the Alphabet lab. The group may be growing: Two X recruiters say on LinkedIn they are working to hire quantum experts.
Such people are rare. In his Carnegie Mellon talk, Hidary said that only 800 people in the world have the expertise needed to truly understand how to apply quantum algorithms. “We literally created a spreadsheet of the experts in this space. We only came up with 800 names globally,” he said, before making a dark joke about the fragility of humankind’s quantum know-how. “When we have a conference we have a lot of security around that community,” Hidary said in CMU’s video of his November talk.
His team hosted some of those experts in November, at a two-day conference on how new quantum hardware and instruments could help physicists attempting to reconcile gravity with quantum mechanics. Speakers from X, MIT, Harvard, and some Alphabet rivals in quantum computing, such as Microsoft, presented.
Google cofounder Sergey Brin was in the audience, according to Chris Monroe, cofounder of quantum computing startup IonQ and a professor at the University of Maryland. Monroe spoke at the conference about his research, including using quantum hardware to simulate a water molecule, but says the event didn’t offer clues about what X’s team is working on. “Why they are investing in quantum gravity and black holes is anyone’s guess but it overlaps with quantum computing so that’s cool,” he says.
In Google’s quantum supremacy experiment, a quantum chip called Sycamore performed a calculation in minutes that company researchers calculate would take a supercomputer 10,000 years. Although the calculation isn’t of practical use, and IBM’s quantum team has questioned its rival’s claims, the result is seen as a sign of how quantum computing hardware is maturing. Google, IBM, and others working on quantum hardware are collaborating with companies such as Daimler and JPMorgan to explore possible applications. Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon have announced or launched programs that allow users to tap prototype quantum hardware via cloud computing.
Despite that interest, current quantum computers are too small yet to do useful work, and quantum computer programming is embryonic. Hidary said in his November talk that making it easier for conventional software engineers to work with quantum computers is crucial to delivering on the technology’s potential.
“It’s such an early field right now that it takes [a] super amount of knowledge even to understand a bit about quantum computing,” he said. “We need to give tools to the wider community.” One possibility, he said, was to use machine learning to close the gap, in the form of helper software that adapts conventional code to quantum systems. “Without that I don’t see how we scale this kind of field,” he said.
X’s quantum team is trying to create more quantum experts. At Carnegie Mellon, Hidary described an internal three-day quantum computing training program that he said about 600 Alphabet employees had taken. His group also runs a residency program for grad students experienced in quantum algorithms, paying relocation and housing costs so they can work at X’s spacious labs in a converted mall near Google’s main campus. The job ad says those who join “the X Quantum team” will get to run algorithms on “real quantum hardware,” presumably Google’s.