Google and XPRIZE are launching a $5 million competition to find practical uses for quantum computers that could actually benefit society. We already know that quantum computers can perform specific tasks faster than classical computers, after Google first claimed quantum advantage for its Sycamore processor in 2019. However, these demonstration tasks are simple benchmarks with no real-world applications.

“There’s a lot of rather abstract mathematical problems where we can prove quantum computers give very, very large speed-ups,” says Ryan Babbush at Google. “But a lot of the research community has been less focused on trying to match those more abstract quantum speed-ups to specific real-world applications, and to try to figure out how quantum computers could be used.”

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To that end, Google and the XPRIZE Foundation are urging researchers to come up with new quantum algorithms as part of a three-year competition. The winning algorithms could solve an existing problem, like finding a new battery electrolyte that vastly improves storage capacity, but it doesn’t need to solve the problem in practice, says Babbush. Instead, researchers just need to show how an algorithm could be applied, detailing the exact quantum computing specifications required. Alternatively, competitors could show how an existing quantum algorithm could be applied to a real-world problem not previously considered.

The prize will judge entrants’ algorithms on a range of criteria, such as how large their impact could be, whether they tackle problems similar to those outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and how feasibly they can be run on machines that are available now or in the near-future.

A total prize fund of $5 million will be split into a grand prize of $3 million shared between up to three winners, $1 million shared between at most five runners-up and $50,000 for each of 20 semi-finalists.

The prize could help shift the focus of quantum computing researchers from looking at technical definitions of quantum advantage, like those demonstrated by Google or IBM, to real-world uses, says Nicolás Quesada at Montreal Polytechnic in Canada. “[The prize is] hitting the nail on the head that this is a very important problem,” says Quesada. “We need to figure out what to do with a quantum computer.”

However, finding socially beneficial quantum algorithms will require a better understanding of how quantum computers work, such as how to deal with noise and errors, says Bill Fefferman at the University of Chicago. The prize doesn’t address this foundational aspect of building quantum computers, he says.

“I’m very optimistic, in principle, that we’ll find algorithms that are really useful,” Fefferman. “I’m not as optimistic that, in the next three years, we’ll be able to discover those algorithms and then also implement them on the current hardware that will exist.”

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