On Wednesday, Google took a victory lap. “We compare it to a Sputnik moment,” Hartmut Neven, the executive who started Google’s quantum program in 2006, told reporters, wearing a silvery jacket and boots apt for the space analogy. In an interview and blog post, Google CEO Sundar Pichai giddily likened the moment to the Wright brothers’ first flight, the first rocket to escape Earth’s gravity, and chess champion Garry Kasparov’s historic loss to a computer.Despite the mondo metaphors, Google’s quantum team didn’t have a big party planned that night. Neven said he was thinking of perhaps a small dinner. “We have a lot going on right now,” noted a more junior member of the team.
The superposition of celebration and sobriety on display at Google’s quantum HQ was fitting. The company’s supremacy experiment is a signal moment in a recent burst of progress in quantum computing. Tech giants, startups, investors, and governments are plowing more money into quantum computing. Nature estimates that private firms working in quantum-related technology raised $400 million in 2017 and 2018, more than double the amount in the previous five years. At the same time, no one quite knows when today’s quantum technology, even Google’s champ Sycamore, will mature into something useful—or profitable."This is not a technology milestone, it’s a scientific milestone," says David Poulin, codirector of the quantum information program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and a professor at Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec.