At the end of October last year, Google announced a major research result that demonstrated that quantum computers can outperform classical computers for specific computing tasks. The Google AI Quantum team declared in the paper that it has proved “quantum superiority” and has even realized “quantum hegemony.” (Google officially announces the realization of quantum hegemony! Exclusive interview with Google CEO: the significance is comparable to the invention of the Wright brothers)
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who has always been low-key, personally made a blog post, participated in media interviews, and took a photo with quantum computing devices on Instagram.
“The significance of this event is comparable to the invention of the Wright brothers,” he said without hesitation in the interview.
However, what Google and Pichai did not disclose is that in addition to the hardware team who published the last paper on “quantum hegemony”, there is also a mysterious team dedicated to developing quantum computing software, which belongs to X Labs.
X Lab, similar to Google’s internal emerging technology incubator, is committed to fostering new technologies that are expected to drive large-scale businesses. Its leading projects are extremely creative and forward-looking, such as Internet hot air balloons, Google Glass, drones, space elevators, and unmanned vehicles.
The lab refers to some wild projects as “Moonshot (Moonshot Project)”, representing ideas that seem unlikely, but worth trying. Some projects have died, such as space elevators, others are still in development, and autonomous driving has successfully hatched, becoming the leader in the field of autonomous driving Waymo.
Compared to quantum computing hardware, X Lab’s mysterious quantum team is more interested in developing new algorithms and applications that can run on quantum computers, hoping to create software libraries for ordinary programmers to develop on it.
Photo | Jack Hidary
Serial entrepreneur Jack Hidary is likely to be one of the leaders in quantum research at X Labs.
“Hardware is very interesting, but the software that can create most of the value is software,” he said in a speech. To a certain extent, this statement sums up the reason why software companies such as Microsoft have a higher market value than hardware companies, even though it is initially the advancement of hardware that has pushed the computing industry.
As for why it is not 100% sure because Google spokesman Aisling O’Gara denied it. “Jack’s team is separate from X Labs,” she said.
However, Jack puts it differently in a book published last year. He claims that his team works in the X Lab building, doing research related to quantum algorithms and developing software libraries, reporting to Astro Teller, the head of the X Lab.
This is very different from what the spokesman said. Even more strangely, X Labs refused to allow Jack or others on the team to be interviewed, although some of them were also engaged in AI-related research.
Hartmut Neven, Google’s quantum AI project leader, has publicly stated, “Jack Hidary works in X Labs, where there is a small team. We maintain close contact to ensure complementarity.”
There is not much public information about Jack. He studied neuroscience and then founded some companies in the Internet wave in the late 1990s. He also tried to run for the mayor of New York City in 2013, promising “if you win, you will be given a pair of Google glasses”, but he failed to win.
Figure | Quantum Computing Equipment (Source: MIT Technology Review)
Jack has been an X Lab consultant since 2016 and officially joined Alphabet as a full-time employee in 2018.
When asked if X Lab had a “Moonshot” project related to quantum research, Google spokesman O’Gara also denied it. But a member of the Jack team said on LinkedIn that he was involved in developing a strategy for the Quantum Moonshot Project.
According to public information, Lab X also has a quantum computing expert, Guifre Vidal, who has worked at the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Canada. He is now a senior research scientist in X Labs, and co-authored a paper with Jack and others under the name of Alphabet Labs.
Possible research directions
So far, we know almost nothing about the research findings of the X Lab quantum team, and can only piece together clues for reasoning and guessing.
Academic and scientific research may be one of the early applications they focus on. The X Lab held a meeting in November last year on the subject of how to use quantum hardware and instruments for physical research, such as helping physicists reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics. Attendees came from institutions such as MIT, Harvard University, and Microsoft. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also participated.
Chris Monroe, the co-founder of quantum computing startup IonQ, said, “The X team didn’t reveal any clues. We don’t know why they care about quantum mechanics and black holes, but it is cool to use quantum computing.”
Figure | Google Sycamore quantum chip (Source: Google)
On the other hand, although quantum computers are not yet mature, thinking about how to build a programming framework for quantum computers is on the agenda. Jack has stated in his speech that making it easier for traditional software engineers to work on quantum computers is critical to realizing the potential of quantum computing technology.
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This is a field that is just getting started. Even if you want to understand the fur of quantum computing, you still need a large amount of knowledge, so developers need simpler and easier tools.
Machine learning is one of them and can be used to bridge the knowledge gap, such as building auxiliary software that supports traditional code and connecting developers with quantum computing hardware. Jack emphasized, “I don’t know how to scale quantum computing without this tool.”
The field of quantum computing is facing this problem: talent reserves are far from enough.
In addition to recruiting quantum computing experts on platforms such as LinkedIn and universities, X Labs also conducts quantum computing training programs within Google. Jack said that about 600 Alphabet employees participated in the three-day training.
His team also set up exclusive projects for graduate students and PhDs who have experience in quantum algorithms. In addition to high salaries, they will also arrange accommodation, pay for relocation and housing costs, etc., hoping to attract more talents to join.
According to Jack, he and his colleagues put together experts and scholars in the field. In the end, it was discovered that only 800 people around the world have the expertise needed to study how to apply quantum algorithms.
“If we all get together for a conference, I’m afraid we need a lot of security measures (to protect the heritage of human quantum technology),” Jack joked in his speech.