Alphabet Has a Second, Secretive Quantum Computing Team

In October, Google celebrated a breakthrough that CEO Sundar Pichai likened to the Wright brothers’ first flight. Company researchers in Santa Barbara, California, 300 miles from the Googleplex, had achieved quantum supremacy—the moment that a quantum computer performs a calculation impossible for any conventional computer.

That was both notable science and a chance for Google to show prominence in a contest among big tech companies, including IBM and Microsoft, to deliver the wild new power promised by quantum computing. The usually low-profile Pichai threw himself into marking the moment, penning a blog post, taking part in a rare media interview, and posting an Instagram photo of himself alongside the shiny machine that scored the result.

Just over a month later, Pichai was named CEO of Google parent Alphabet. But neither the company nor its quantum-happy boss have said much about another quantum computing team at Alphabet, at its secretive lab X.

X, formerly known as Google X, is dedicated to incubating “moonshot” technologies that might underpin new Google-scale businesses. Its small group of quantum researchers is not building its own quantum computing hardware. The group’s leader is more interested in creating new algorithms and applications to run on quantum computers, and building software libraries that allow conventional coders to use the exotic machines.

“Hardware’s very interesting [but] it’s really software that gets the majority of the value creation,” said Jack Hidary, the serial entrepreneur who leads X’s quantum research, in a November talk at Carnegie Mellon University. He pointed to how software companies such as Microsoft are collectively worth much more than the hardware manufacturers their products run on, even though it was advances in hardware that initially created the computing industry.

Google and rivals like IBM are investing in quantum computing because they believe it can catalyze major advances in many fields of science and industry, such as drug development and artificial intelligence.

Quantum computers are built out of devices called qubits, which encode data into quantum mechanical processes apparent only under carefully controlled conditions. The superconducting qubits that make up IBM’s and Google’s experimental quantum processors operate at temperatures colder than outer space. Groups of qubits can perform mathematical tricks conventional computers can’t by exploiting quantum phenomena that don’t have equivalents in everyday life, like the way quantum mechanical objects can become “entangled” such that what happens to one instantly affects another.

X declined to make Hidary or anyone else on his team, which also does research on artificial intelligence, available for an interview. A spokesperson, Aisling O’Gara, claimed Hidary’s group is a separate entity from X.

However, Hidary’s biography on a book he authored about “applied” quantum computing, published last year, says he and his team work at X on quantum algorithms and software libraries; they sit in the X building and report to the lab’s chief, Astro Teller.

“He’s working at X, there’s a small team there,” said Hartmut Neven, leader of Google’s quantum computing project, when asked about Hidary’s role during an October press event at the Santa Barbara lab to mark its quantum supremacy result. “We stay in close touch to make sure this stays nicely complementary.”

A neuroscientist by training, Hidary founded and took public the IT portal EarthWeb during the dotcom boom of the late ’90s. In 2013 he ran as an independent for mayor of New York City on a tech-centric platform that included, according to New York magazine, promising at one event that if he won “everyone gets a pair of Google Glasses.” He got 0.3 percent of the vote on Election Day and has been an adviser to X since at least 2016, joining Alphabet full time in 2018.

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