John Martinis used the arm of his reading glasses to indicate the spot where he intends to demonstrate an almost unimaginably powerful new form of computer in a few years. It is a cylindrical socket an inch and a half across, at the bottom of a torso-sized stack of plates, blocks, and wires of brass, copper, and gold. The day after I met with him this fall, he loaded the socket with an experimental superconducting chip etched with a microscopic Google logo and cooled the apparatus to a hundredth of a degree Celsius above absolute zero. To celebrate that first day of testing the machine, Martinis threw what he called “a little party” at a brewpub with colleagues from his newly outfitted Google lab in Santa Barbara, California.
That party was nothing compared with the celebration that will take place if Martinis and his group can actually create the wonder computer they seek. Because it would harness the strange properties of quantum physics that arise in extreme conditions like those on the ultracold chip, the new computer would let a Google coder run calculations in a coffee break that would take a supercomputer of today millions of years. The software that Google has developed on ordinary computers to drive cars or answer questions could become vastly more intelligent. And earlier-stage ideas bubbling up at Google and its parent company, such as robots that can serve as emergency responders or software that can converse at a human level, might become real.