SANTA BARBARA • Google says it has achieved a long-sought breakthrough called "quantum supremacy", which could allow new kinds of computers to do calculations at speeds that are inconceivable with today's technology.
The Silicon Valley giant's research lab in Santa Barbara, California, reached a milestone that scientists had been working towards since the 1980s: its quantum computer performed a task that is not possible with traditional computers, according to a paper published in the science journal Nature.
A quantum machine could one day drive big advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, and make even the most powerful supercomputers look like toys.
The Google device did in 3 minutes 20 seconds, a mathematical calculation that supercomputers could not complete in under 10,000 years, the company said in its paper on Wednesday.
Scientists likened Google's announcement to the Wright brothers' first plane flight in 1903 - proof that something is really possible even though it may be years before it can fulfil its potential.
"The original Wright flyer was not a useful airplane," said Mr Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist from the University of Texas at Austin who reviewed Google's paper before publication.
"But it was designed to prove a point. And it proved the point," he added.
Still, some researchers cautioned against getting too excited about Google's achievement since so much more work needs to be done before quantum computers can migrate out of the research lab.
Right now, a single quantum machine costs millions of dollars to build.
Many of the technology industry's biggest names, including Microsoft, Intel and IBM, as well as Google, are jockeying for a position in quantum computing.
And venture capitalists have invested more than US$450 million (S$613 million) in start-ups exploring the technology, according to a recent study.
China is spending US$400 million on a national quantum laboratory and has filed almost twice as many quantum patents as the United States in recent years.
The Trump administration followed suit this year with its own National Quantum Initiative, promising to spend US$1.2 billion on quantum research, including computers.