A teenager from Texas has taken quantum computing down a notch. In a paper posted online earlier this month, 18-year-old Ewin Tang proved that ordinary computers can solve an important computing problem with performance potentially comparable to that of a quantum computer.
In its most practical form, the “recommendation problem” relates to how services like Amazon and Netflix determine which products you might like to try. Computer scientists had considered it to be one of the best examples of a problem that’s exponentially faster to solve on quantum computers — making it an important validation of the power of these futuristic machines. Now Tang has stripped that validation away.
“This was one of the most definitive examples of a quantum speedup, and it’s no longer there,” said Tang, who graduated from the University of Texas, Austin, in spring and will begin a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in the fall.
In 2014, at age 14 and after skipping the fourth through sixth grades, Tang enrolled at UT Austin and majored in mathematics and computer science. In the spring of 2017 Tang took a class on quantum information taught by Scott Aaronson, a prominent researcher in quantum computing. Aaronson recognized Tang as an unusually talented student and offered himself as adviser on an independent research project. Aaronson gave Tang a handful of problems to choose from, including the recommendation problem. Tang chose it somewhat reluctantly.