A pioneer in AI-powered computer vision, whose research helps power Google Maps, YouTube, and more, Hartmut Neven now leads Google’s efforts in quantum computing—the still-emerging science that aims to transform fields as diverse as pharmaceutical discovery and financial services by manipulating subatomic particles. In October 2019, his team published a paper stating that its processor, Sycamore, had achieved “quantum supremacy” by performing calculations in 200 seconds that would take 10,000 years with a conventional computer. The feat wasn’t without controversy—quantum rival IBM contended that its fastest supercomputer would take only two and a half days to do the same, downgrading the magnitude of Google’s claim—but it was still widely hailed as a landmark.
The quantum project has posed new challenges, such as how to cool a processor to near absolute-zero temperatures using liquid helium. But Neven has always thrived on the edge. He was among the first to connect the AI revolution currently in full swing and quantum advances yet to come. “I’m guilty of having popularized the terms quantum machine learning and quantum AI,” he says. “Now there are whole sections of departments at universities that do quantum machine learning.”
When people ask Neven how soon quantum computers will be ready for commercial deployment in areas where their speed might be transformative, his standard estimate is “10 years.” He appreciates Google giving him the runway. “There’s this nerdy pleasure of pushing into disciplines that are intrinsically fascinating,” he says. “Not, ‘When can we see a return on our investment?’ But, ‘Hey, this sounds interesting. Sooner or later, this technology will play an important role. Why don’t you explore it?'”