The race in quantum computing, the next frontier in technology, is heating up and China is fast emerging as a key player.
Quantum supremacy. Quite literally the Holy Grail in the world of computing. Simply put, quantum supremacy refers to the point at which a quantum computer reliably does something that no conventional computer can do in a reasonable amount of time. It is a colossal breakthrough, raising the power of computation exponentially and enabling us to solve complex problems dramatically faster than before.
So, in 2019, when Google declared that it had reached quantum supremacy with a processor called Sycamore, the announcement sent a wave of excitement throughout the computing world. Sycamore could perform a computation in 200 seconds that the world’s fastest supercomputers would take about 10,000 years to solve. Suddenly, new frontiers for computing had opened—at least theoretically.
Close on the heels of Google’s announcement, Chinese scientists at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, in the eastern province of Anhui, led by Pan Jianwei made an even more dramatic announcement. In December 2020, they declared that they had built a quantum computer that could perform certain computations nearly 100 trillion times faster than the world’s most advanced supercomputer. Nicknamed Jiuzhang, after an ancient Chinese mathematical text, the new quantum computer can process calculations much faster than Sycamore and with more accurate results, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency.
Jiuzhang’s arrival on the scene represented a milestone in China’s efforts to become a technology superpower. It is also, at some levels, emblematic of a race that is quietly unfolding across the world: to become the global leader in quantum computing.
Let the games begin!
The quantum computing race started in the United States, and in some ways was kicked off by a speech given by legendary physicist Richard Feynman at MIT in 1980, in which he said that it appeared impossible to develop a quantum system on a standard computer. He then proposed a basic model for how a quantum computer would work. Scientists in Japan and the United Kingdom also played an important pioneering role in the development of the idea in those years, and Toshiba in Japan continues to be a big player today.
In the US, the private sector and universities are heavily involved in advancing quantum computing research. Big Tech—primarily Google, IBM and Microsoft—is particularly active in pushing forward the quantum cutting edge. Google has developed its quantum computer at its artificial intelligence laboratory, QuAIL, a joint initiative with NASA and the Universities Space Research Association. IBM is developing its Raleigh quantum computer to 64 qubits (quantum bits), and Microsoft has developed an open-source programming language, Q#, which can be used to develop and run quantum algorithms.
In 2018, with the signing of the National Quantum Initiative Act, research into quantum technology was fixed as a national priority by the US government. This Act was an attempt to bring together often isolated and siloed research efforts across the country to “provide for a coordinated federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security.”
In China, the development of high-end computing is more of a state-controlled endeavor, although major companies are also active in terms of the application of these technologies in the real world.
China declared quantum technology to be a key priority in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2026), and in October 2020, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “stressed the importance and urgency of advancing the development of quantum science and technology.” In many ways, China is seen as having caught up to the US in the field, especially in quantum communications. In 2016, a program known as Micius was launched to conduct ground-to-space experiments in quantum communication and the following year, the Chinese government announced the establishment of a $10 billion national laboratory for quantum information sciences. It was that laboratory which created Jiuzhang, the prototype quantum computer.
The Hefei university team, led by Pan, also announced in December 2020 that it had established the world’s first integrated quantum communication network, combining over 700 optical fibers on the ground with two ground-to-satellite links to achieve “quantum key distribution over a total distance of 4,600 kilometers.”
“Our work shows that quantum communication technology is mature enough for large-scale practical applications,” Pan said in an article published by the news website Sina.com. “Similarly, if the national quantum networks from different countries were merged together and if universities, institutions and companies gathered together to standardize related protocols, hardware, etc., a global quantum communication network could be established.”
Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent all have quantum technology research facilities. Tencent’s Quantum Lab, set up in 2019, “aims to connect fundamental theory with practical applications in the fast-growing sector of quantum information technology,” according to the company.
“You can see a very clear difference in the way that the US and China are involved in pushing tech forward,” says Adeh DeSandies, Chief Technology Officer of Innovative Auctions, a Hong Kong-based software company that specializes in providing advice on auction and market design. “The Chinese government has put a lot of thought into how they want the future to develop. They put together these Five-Year Plans, they discuss it internally and then they publish something that defines how the country will be focusing its efforts over the next five years. The US has honestly just been asleep at the wheel.”
Steps by the US government, particularly with the new Biden administration, provide hope of a shift toward a realization that the US has to attract more young talent to the fields of science and technology, DeSandies says. “Government programs like the National Quantum Initiative Act are a step in the right direction, but there̓s a lack of cohesive vision and support. We need to make it so that earning a Ph.D. in physics is as marketable and valuable as getting an MBA.”
Both China and the US are pumping a huge amount of money into the quantum computing race because of its downstream importance. “Computer technology is a stepping stone toward building the foundation of an information society,” says Xu Jiang, professor and acting department head at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Any developed country and any country that wants to become developed, has to invest heavily in information technology.”
The Chinese government is building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences as part of a big push in the field, and the US government last year provided $1 billion in funding to research quantum computing and artificial intelligence—part of the $1.2 billion allocated by the National Quantum Initiative Act—and there are calls for the US to dramatically increase its investment in high-end computing research.
Various organizations and companies in Europe are also in the quantum computing race, and in 2018 the European Commission launched the Quantum Technologies Flagship program with a budget of €1 billion. Both the UK and France have their own quantum projects in progress to stay in the race, aiming not only to master the technology, but also to find uses for it.
“Countries won’t be satisfied with just using the technology, they will also want to be the original contributors for future and next generation technologies,” says Xu. “But ultimately, with this kind of research, the target itself is less important than the journey.”
It is clear that China has suddenly become a major player in one of the most cutting-edge areas of science and technology. “You could say China is ahead at this stage because of enormous government focus on and funding of technology,” says David Fincher, SOC Architect and Silicon Lead at ThinkTech China. “But it’s really a horse race. There could be a new development in the US next week and then they would be ahead.”
A world of possibilities
The advent of quantum computing in the past few years has opened new realms of possibilities that are likely to impact every aspect of our lives. Massive computing power is very much at the heart of artificial intelligence, meteorology, molecular modelling, pharmaceuticals, financial market management and cybersecurity. The speed with which applications are being created in the field of computing is growing.
“The development of quantum computers has huge implications,” says DeSandies. “There are problems that traditional computers can solve, it’s just that it would take so long for them to solve them that the result becomes meaningless. Reliable quantum computers can solve that same problem in seconds and a huge part of online banking, online cryptography and secure messaging—all of it could just become public. It’s crazy when you actually consider it that way.”
Cybersecurity and encryption algorithms enable companies and organizations to securely share data and ensure it is only accessible with the right “key,” but quantum computing can potentially break any current encryption system, making current cybersecurity systems redundant. As a result, a new generation of encryption technology will be needed to protect sensitive data from potential quantum computer attacks.
“With quantum computing, all existing passwords and encryption schemes will be obsolete,” says Nebojsa Novakovic, managing director at MGN Digital, a manufacturer of computers and data processing equipment specializing in supercomputing and related platforms. “That would mean that all security protocols will need to be revised.”
But on the other hand, financial institutions are estimated to lose between $10 billion and $40 billion in revenue each year due to poor data management practices and fraud, and quantum computing could open new opportunities in terms of the safer electronic money exchanges, risk assessment and fraud detection.
There are no effective limits to what quantum computing will be able to do. Whatever science fiction movies you’ve seen are just the beginning of what might be possible. A quantum computer could produce more accurate financial forecasts assuming different economic situations, improve weather forecasting and could also map out even the most complex molecules to help in predicting their chemical properties. This could lead to a myriad advances in fields including the pharmaceutical industry, the energy sector and the environment. Quantum computers could help organizations optimize logistics and workflow scheduling. And of course, there will be a military angle. “It will have some large-scale military applications, but not commercial ones any time soon,” says Fincher.
“Give it another three to five years,” says Novakovic. “Then we’ll be able to understand what the tangible and specific benefits this kind of computing can bring.”
“Understanding what quantum computers are capable of and what that bigger picture for humanity looks like is very unclear,” says DeSandies. “When thinking about quantum computers, we can think about it like this: It’s not helping us calculate how to get onto the moon or Mars, it’s helping us calculate how to get out of the solar system. What’s more interesting, really, are the things that we have yet to imagine.”
The power of quantum computers is undeniable, but Xu highlights how the technology is not yet mature, and says scientists are still only taking the first steps toward beginning to understand its capabilities. “The technology has yet to reach the same mature state as current digital computers,” he says. “What it will do and when are still open questions. What it will mean for the business community is still open to interpretation.”
One significant downside with quantum computing is that there is a higher level of unpredictability and of errors than with standard computers. “The problem with quantum computing is that it’s still quite unreliable,” says DeSandies. “Let’s say you have 100 bits. Because of the unpredictable nature of particles at that level, 60% of them might be incorrect. And so, you’ll only have the remaining 40% to work with. Figuring out how to manage that uncertainty and error rate is where the technology is slowly improving.”
All governments around the world are making use of the massive computing power now available, but China with its highly centralized system has been particularly effective in the use of supercomputing power and big data. China is doing well both in basic research and in developing applications.
“China is already the leader when it comes to applied computing, and this rapid development hasn’t been seen in other parts of the world,” says Xu. “An example can be seen in the adoption of WeChat and digital payment applications. But a lot of the technology that China needs, such as semiconductors, is developed in other countries.”
Awareness of the crucial importance of computing and technology for the future has become a cornerstone of government policies everywhere and controls on tech transfers and related intellectual property have been growing. China is currently at a disadvantage in terms of availability of semiconductors but is working hard to overcome the problem by developing its own capabilities.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt warned in March 2021 that China is now just one to two years behind the US in AI technology. “America’s technological leadership is fundamental to its security, prosperity and democratic way of life,” he said. “But this vital advantage is now at risk, with China surging to overtake the United States in critical areas.”
China’s recent success in quantum computing is surely not the end of the story—right now, researchers in other parts of the world are working to beat the computing speeds and reliability of China’s latest quantum computer. But regardless of which computer is the fastest today or tomorrow, the key fact is that this trend of ever-faster and more powerful computing is pushing the world toward total computerization.
“Even though the word ‘supremacy’ gets used when we talk about quantum computing, it’s never going to be about domination, it’s going to be about improving efficiency,” says Fincher. “It’s all about being able to do things for less money and faster than someone else. Quantum computers will definitely be used to bring new drivers into the economy, just as supercomputers 25 years ago allowed us to do things that ordinary engineers couldn’t do.”
At the end of the day, a lot depends on how the advances in quantum computing are adapted for the real world—and who can do it best. “Quantum research teams all over the world are working hard on this,” says Fincher. “But there has been no quantum product produced yet.” Even the two most recent advances—Google’s Sycamore and China’s Jiuzhang—were demonstrations using prototype machines in the lab, and not actual machines that can be deployed in the real world. Irrespective of who wins the quantum computing race, the real test for the technology will be in its real-world application.
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