U.S. and other Western scientists voice awe, and even alarm, at China’s quickening advances and spending on quantum communications and computing, revolutionary technologies that could give a huge military and commercial advantage to the nation that conquers them.
The concerns echo — although to a lesser degree — the shock in the West six decades ago when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, sparking a space race.
In quick succession, China in recent months has utilized a quantum satellite to transmit ultra-secure data, inaugurated a 1,243-mile quantum link between Shanghai and Beijing, and announced a $10 billion quantum computing center.
“To me, what is alarming is the level of coordination of what they’ve done,” said Christopher Monroe, a physicist and pioneer in quantum communication at the University of Maryland.
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Perhaps more than the accomplishments of the Chinese scientists, it is the resources that China is pouring into the research into how atoms, photons and other basic molecular matter can harness, process and transmit information.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that their scientists are better,” said Martin Laforest, a physicist and senior manager at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It’s just that when they say, ‘We need a billion dollars to do this,’ bam, the money comes.”
The engineering hurdles that China has cleared for quantum communication means that the United States will lag in that area for years.
“The general feeling is that they’ll get there before us,” said Rene Copeland, a high-performance computer expert who is president of D-Wave (Government) Inc., a Vancouver-area company that uses aspects of quantum computing in its systems.
But building a functioning quantum computer sets forth different kinds of challenges than mastering quantum communication, and may involve creating materials and processes that do not yet exist. Once thought to be decades off, scientists now presume a quantum computer may be built in a decade or less. The stakes are so high that advances by the U.S. government remain secret.
“We don’t know exactly where the United States is. I fervently hope that a lot of this work is taking place in a classified setting,” said R. Paul Stimers, a lawyer at K&L Gates, a Washington law firm, who specializes in emerging technologies. “It is a race.”
It doesn’t necessarily mean that their scientists are better.
Martin Lafores, Institute for Quantum Computing
Pure quantum computers remain largely theoretical although simple prototypes exist. Many designs call for them to operate in super cold conditions, bordering on absolute zero, or around minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than outer space, without any noise or micro movements that can cause malfunction.
What has made them the Holy Grail for nations and private industry is that quantum computers, in theory, are magnitudes better at sifting huge amounts of data than the binary processors that power mainframes, desktops and even smart phones today. They also can process algorithms that break all widely used encryption.
Rather than doing a series of millions of computations, based on binary options of ones and zeros, quantum computers employ particles that exist in an infinite number of “superpositions” of the two states simultaneously, a condition that towering physicist Albert Einstein once labeled as “spooky.”
A quantum computer “can feel all the possibilities at once,” said Warner A. Miller, a physicist at Florida Atlantic University, who, like the others, spoke last week at a forum on quantum computing at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington.
China splashed into the news in June when it announced that a satellite and a ground station had communicated through “entangled” quantum particles. Entangled particles, even if separated by thousands of miles, act in unison. Any change in one particle will induce a change in the other, almost as if a single particle existed in multiple places at once.
Such long-distance quantum communication smashed records, occurring over 745 miles, far beyond the mile or so scientists had tested previously, and signaled Chinese mastery over a form of communication deemed ultra-secure and unhackable.
“I read that on a Sunday and went, ‘oh sh-t,’” said Gregory S. Clark, an Australian-born mathematician who is chief executive of Symantec Corp., a global cybersecurity company with headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Neither the U.S. military nor private industry is known to have such a capability.
The whole world changes.
Gregory Clark, chief executive of Symantec
If the technology is refined, Clark said, it could make land-based communications infrastructure obsolete. “The whole world changes,” he said at a forum Sept. 19.
In early September, China chalked up another milestone, completing a quantum communication link between its capital and Shanghai, by far the biggest such link in the world, surpassing anything in the United States or Europe.
In such a link, if an encryption key used by either of two parties faces interference by a third party, the two parties know not to use it.
China again demonstrated the prowess of its space-based quantum satellite, dubbed Micius, on Sept. 29 when the head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences held a video conference with an Austrian scientist over a distance of 4,630 miles.
Also last month, China announced that it would build the world’s biggest quantum research facility, a $10 billion center in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, with the aim of building a working quantum computer that could break most any encryption within seconds.
China already has the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, which captured the title in the 2016 and 2017 at a competition in Frankfurt, Germany.
Monroe, the Maryland physicist, said China had set a goal of fully constructing the quantum research center within two years.
“If it costs $10 billion, China will just do it without asking, and they’ll put an army together to do it,” Monroe said. “I don’t think any other government in the world is able to throw together something (so) fast.”
Google, IBM and Microsoft all see huge opportunity in quantum computing and fund research labs. Commercial applications may include determining how polymers go together, mapping the genome, finding oil in complex geology, detecting cancer and handling air traffic.
Quantum computers can sift through vast amounts of data. One that handles 60 quantum bits, or units of quantum information, could hold 64 exabytes of data – 2,560 times more than all the material managed by the Library of Congress, which has 838 miles of bookshelves.
Military applications are vast and range beyond breaking enemy encryption to include quantum-enabled weaponry, navigation systems that can’t be jammed, and the use of quantum-powered artificial intelligence in war fighting.
In those areas, China is not believed to have an advantage.
“The point is, they are some distance from that quantum supremacy threshold,” said Arthur Herman, who leads the technology and defense program at the Hudson Institute.
Still, Herman called for U.S. policymakers to focus hard on the quantum challenge.
“We need a Manhattan Project style funding focus in order for a national quantum initiative to succeed,” Herman said, referring to the World War II era program to produce the first nuclear weapon.