- As the China-US tech war escalates, we break down some useful terms, such as qubits, superposition, and entanglement.
- Benefits of leading an expanding quantum race to defense, logistics, modeling and cybersecurity
In November, the United States government added 12 more Chinese companies to the export blacklist due to national security concerns. This time, quantum computing
companies are part of it.
According to the US Department of Commerce, some of the companies added to the blacklist have helped the Chinese military “with anti-submarine and stealth applications, and the ability to break encryption or develop unbreakable encryption.”
All of these applications relate to quantum technology that the US and China are trying to develop. How exactly does this technology work and is it really a game changer? Read on.
What is quantum technology?
Quantum technology is a complex area of physics that studies the behavior of subatomic particles, which are smaller than the atoms that are the basic building blocks of all matter. An important area of interest in quantum technology is quantum computing. Quantum computers can perform many calculations at the same time, in contrast to classical computers, which perform calculations one at a time.
The basic unit of information in traditional computing is a “bit” that represents one (0 or 1) of two binary values. The computer can interpret these values and display them in various formats such as words and pictures.
The quantum computer uses another basic unit of memory, the qubit. A qubit can represent 0, 1, or both at the same time. This ability of an object to exist in more than one form at a time is called superposition.
The interaction of multiple qubits in a computer makes it even more complicated.
Here comes the concept of entanglement. Several particles in the quantum system are connected and influence each other.
For example, if one qubit is 0, then the other connected qubits will assume the value 1 and vice versa, so the measurement of each qubit depends on the other qubit.
Because the basic building blocks of quantum computers
can represent all possibilities simultaneously, they are theoretically much faster and more powerful than the conventional computers we are accustomed to. For example, physicists in China recently launched a quantum computer that they say took 1 millisecond to complete a task that would take 30 trillion years on conventional computers.
If they’re so great, why aren’t all computers quantum computers?
Given the obsession with the speed of technology, you might think quantum computing would be the default by now.
But so far, these machines perform very special tasks in a protected environment for only a short time and make many mistakes in the process. Therefore, it is arguable among scientists whether “quantum supremacy” (the idea that quantum computers may be superior to traditional computers, at least for certain tasks) has ever been achieved.
The main challenge for scientists is to get qubits to maintain enough superposition and entanglement to accomplish the task. The quantum states of superposition and entanglement are very fragile and, without proper temperature and environmental conditions, they quickly lose quality and operate erratically.
To function properly, qubits must be stored in a special refrigerator at a very low temperature near the point where the atom stops moving. The need for special equipment is the main reason why only countries that are willing to invest large amounts of resources have studied quantum computing.
Leading Chinese quantum physicist Ban Jianwei says in october it will take “four or five years of hard work” to correct quantum errors for two quantum computers developed by his team before finding practical solutions to important scientific problems.
What are some potential applications?
In an article published in 2020, Pan, the father of China’s quantum satellite program, outlined three uses of quantum technology that the country was trying to develop.
- Quantum sensors capable of detecting or guiding submarines hiding hundreds of meters below the ocean or devices that can operate independently for months without GPS signals.
2. Quantum computers which could perform calculations that would take present-day high-performance computer thousands of years to solve – such as cracking encryption – in seconds;
3. Quantum Internet uses entangled particles to transmit messages for ultra-secure communication.
In addition to military and national security applications, quantum research has the potential to contribute to significant scientific advances.
According to a McKinsey report in 2021, quantum computers are expected to help researchers develop new drugs by modeling larger, more complex molecules much faster.
Researchers are also studying climate applications, and suggest that high-speed quantum computing simulations could help scientists find ways to optimize processes to make more efficient batteries or fertilizers or reduce carbon emissions.
As interest in quantum computing applications grows, Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post to R&D tech giants including IBM, Google and Huawei Technologies Co., has provided a free platform for people to develop quantum algorithms.
Which countries are leading in the quantum technology race?
Britain, the European Union, and the United States have all announced plans to lead the global competition in quantum science and technology in recent years.
Meanwhile, China’s national quantum program was kept secret until 2020. In 2020, quantum technology was listed as a top priority in China’s five-year development program, along with six other major scientific and technological areas.
In December 2021, Harvard reported that in the areas of quantum computing, quantum communication, and quantum sensing (three areas traditionally cited by US researchers), “China is catching up and in some cases has already overtaken America. ”
Both countries have invested heavily and have set strict guidelines for research on quantum technology.
In September 2020, Pan and his team claimed to have achieved quantum supermacy with a new machine that was one million times faster than the record set by Google-built quantum computer Sycamore.
China has more than 3,000 quantum technology-related patents, twice as many as the United States, but lags behind in quantum computing-specific patents, according to a 2021 report by Valuenex .
Why is the US worried about China’s quantum research?
According to a Congressional Research Report, quantum computing could be threat to existing encryption methods by about 2030-2040.
Modern encryption used to protect information is almost impossible for a normal computer to break, but a quantum computer can do it with its great computing power.
This gives adversaries access to sensitive information about US military or intelligence activities, the report said.
The report also predicts that improvements in quantum computing and machine learning, sub-fields of artificial intelligence, could help countries develop more accurate and lethal weapons.
China has already developed quantum equipment with potential military applications.
This year, scientists from Tsinghua University have developed a quantum radar that can detect stealthy aircraft and cause small electromagnetic storm.
In 2017, the Chinese Academy of Sciences also developed a quantum submarine detector that can detect submarines from afar.