Long Read on the state of quantum computing in China
China’s Quantum Leap
In this long read you’ll find answers to questions such as: What are the distinguishing features of quantum computing and what stage is development at currently? What strategies are employed by corporations and politicians – especially in China – to advance development? Who are the superstars on the research scene? What are they working on and where will there be practical application opportunities for quantum computing?
The development of quantum computers is currently taking centre stage in science and politics worldwide, as well as being a matter of general public interest. Global players in the field of research are mostly to be found in the USA, China and Europe. Because they haven’t yet standardised the development and implementation of industry norms at this stage of research, there will not be one single universal quantum computer, but instead multiple approaches based on different technologies and application fields will emerge simultaneously. It is not yet possible to predict when we will reach the point of having a viable quantum computer. The quantum leap has not happened yet.[jom1] Robustness and stability are essential requirements to ensure that a quantum computer is suitable for as wide a range of applications as possible. The potential is huge, however there is a lack of stable hardware and reliable software, plus the fact that the algorithms to allow precision use of the quantum computer still need to be written.
The current state of research and the special features of quantum computersA quantum computer works by applying the principles of quantum mechanics microelectronically to solve complex mathematical problems based on the ambivalence of quantum physics. These problems are either not solvable for today’s most powerful supercomputers – for instance the Japanese Fugaku, which has almost half a million teraflops of processing power – or they would need an inordinately long time to do so. Quantum computers can also find solutions that have so far remained inaccessible to us despite the high power of classic computers, and this will be the start of a new dimension of digitalisation. Processing power increases exponentially with the number of qubits.
What are Qubits?
Qubit is the common abbreviation for quantum bit, the fundamental information unit of a quantum computer. Classic computers are based on the bit, which can assume just two states (0 or 1). A qubit, which can be made from an atom or photon for instance, can assume not just 0 and 1, but simultaneously every state that is a vector of the number 1, in other words a superposition.
The USA’s advantage over China has been shrinking recently. This is apparent from the thriving presence of the Chinese internet industry. The “Big Three”, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT), have increasingly been investing in research relating to quantum technology of this nature, and are constantly on the look-out for innovative minds. Alongside these and other large-scale business investors, fully or partially state-funded institutions are also working hard to recruit the right kind of talent within the home market, as well as overseas in the Western world. For instance spin-offs of Chinese think-tanks, innovation hubs, accelerators and incubators are becoming established. In this respect a clearly defined focus and rigorous implementation policy are emerging as one of China’s comparative strengths:
The People’s Republic of China and human capital
The “High-Level Talent Recruitment Program”, also known as the “Thousand Talents Plan” (Qianren jihua 千人计划), started back in late 2008 against the backdrop of the global financial crisis. The idea was to recruit leading international experts systematically, and at the same time exert influence overseas to encourage the top Chinese scientists educated at Western elite universities to return to their home country. These measures imposed by the government and the favourable proposals of being able to find good jobs in their native country seem to be successful: plenty of tech talents, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning, software development and quantum computing, are coming to China. This trend cannot be overlooked: according to the Chinese Returnees from Overseas Study, over 70 per cent of Chinese undergraduates and researchers who had relocated overseas are now returning. In line with the proverbial government directive “Picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China” (Yiguo caihua, Zhonghua niangmi 异国采花，中华酿蜜), China’s government specifically encourages the acquisition of intellectual property for the purpose of strategic advantage. The expertise of the returnees helps China. And that befits a strategy designed to achieve global superiority in the application and creation of artificial intelligence (AI), in which quantum technology is a key element.
In China quantum technologies have been a focus of political strategies for a long time. This is also clear from the rigorous government planning: in the current 14th five-year plan (2021–2025) they announce “major breakthroughs”. These are supposed to emerge in technology sectors such as quantum information technology, artificial intelligence, semiconductors and space travel. It is hoped that significant development advances will be achieved in quantum technologies as a result of this systematic brain gain, as well as numerous national innovation projects, training labs and state funding – and that this will put the Chinese tech industry on course to become a world market leader. The intention is to achieve this goal through a concerted strategy involving the state and the economic sector – something difficult to imagine in the West – which would mean providing private and state-operated research institutions with optimum financial, research and marketing conditions.
How can this goal be achieved? China primarily invests in evidence-based research approaches, scientific publications and strategic patents. While European patent registrations in the quantum technology sector are lagging behind, figures from the US and China are high: a working paper published in 2019 demonstrated that the USA and China hold half of all quantum technology patents registered. This success can be attributed to funding: in the USA it’s primarily the tech mega-corporations that spend money on an aggressive patent policy, whereas in China the state is the main funding provider and these funds mostly benefit research at state institutions and universities. Huge sums are spent on commercialisation of quantum technologies in the field of quantum communication, as well as the development of Quantum Key Distribution (QKD, a quantum cryptography process) and cold-atom interferometry (used in applications such as quantum sensor technology and metrology). Another particular focus of Chinese activities is the military practicability of quantum mechanics processes, which are being closely linked with civil research. Although there is no transparency with regard to the precise numbers, rumours are circulating of an eleven-figure sum in euros, in addition to the ongoing government funding.
A research centre is being built in Hefei, capital of the Chinese Anhui Province, at a cost of 10 billion euros, which will be a national laboratory for quantum communication technologies. The city of Jinan in Eastern China also wants to build a quantum valley, with the aim of starting up projects worth billions by 2025.
But it isn’t just state funding, a lot of money is also being channelled into quantum technology research by the Chinese online giants. For instance Alibaba has announced that the company will be investing a proportion of its planned research and development budget, a sum of around 13 billion euros, in the development of quantum computing.
Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is the best-known process in quantum cryptography. The application of quantum-based cryptography makes it possible to transmit unhackable messages. At the moment the roll-out of terrestrial QKD networks in China is the most advanced in the world. China already operates a quantum cable 2000 kilometres long between the cities of Shanghai, Hefei, Jinan and Beijing. As quantum states have a maximum transmission length of around 100 kilometres through fibre-optic cables, messages have to be decrypted and re-encrypted at 32 trusted nodes and relayed to the next point. It was the discovery of quantum repeaters that made the quantum net (QNet) possible in the first place. The attractiveness of intrinsically secure quantum encryption makes its potential interesting not only to the military and governments, but also for a number of commercial applications. Virtual doctor’s appointments and even secret project meetings are already taking place on the QNet.
Quantum Key Distribution, quantum cryptography and the QNet
The QNet would be able to provide three applications that have not existed so far on the conventional internet: unhackable communication, secure quantum computing in the Cloud and traceless searching on the net. In the next few years China and the USA plan to develop large networks for quantum cryptography, which could become the start of a general QNet. Such ambitious infrastructure projects already include the planning of quantum-ready terrestrial fibre-optics, submarine cables – and in particular communication satellites.
In August 2016, China launched the quantum-based satellite “Micius”. The satellite, which was named after Mozi 墨子, a philosopher from the Warring States period (480–221 BC), was the starting point for the first successful transmission of a quantum key and the encrypted communication based on it. The project leader, Chinese physicist Pan Jianwei 潘建伟, conducted a quantum-encrypted video chat with his former doctoral supervisor, Anton Zeilinger, who was in Vienna at the time. The distance between the two quantum physicists was around 8,000 kilometres. So they were successful in carrying out a key exchange via satellite between China and Austria, thereby creating a secure communication channel. The satellite acted as a trusted node here. The video conference encrypted in this way using QKD was then held over a standard internet connection. China plans to establish a blanket QNet by 2030.
Quantum satellites and quantum computers
Pan Jianwei is the leading quantum scientist in the country. He is referred to as “China’s Einstein” and ranks amongst the Chinese scientists who have been educated overseas. Pan completed his PhD in Vienna under Anton Zeilinger, one of the most highly reputed quantum scientists in the world. Pan founded a research group in Heidelberg and then returned to China, where he is now known as the “father of quantum”. He is so highly regarded that his laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in the city of Hefei is visited from time to time by President Xi Jinping. Pan’s goal is to establish a long-distance, high-speed quantum communication system that will be compatible with classic communication technology and is up to ten billion times faster than Sycamore, Google’s quantum computer built in 2019.
In May 2021 Pan Jianwei’s research team developed a programmable superconducting quantum processor with 62 qubits and called it Zu Chongzhi 祖沖之 after a well-known 5th century Chinese mathematician and astronomer. The system's core objective is to synchronously increase the number of integrated qubits and improve the performance of superconducting qubits, so as to achieve exponential acceleration in the processing speed of specific problems, and finally apply it in practice.
Research on quantum computers is proceeding full steam ahead: a few months after the initial Zu Chongzhi version, a follow-up with 66 qubits was launched by Pan Jianwei’s team in cooperation with the Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics (Chinese Academy of Sciences). The additional four qubits can achieve an improvement to the processing power in terms of both quality and quantity. This means that the Zu Chongzhi 2.0 is ten million times faster than the fastest regular supercomputer and a million times more powerful than the superconducting quantum computer Sycamore made by Google. But another Chinese quantum computer, Nine Chapter 2, deserves a mention here as well: launched at the end of 2021, it is a product of the research team from Hefei, Shanghai and Wuxi. Its processing speed is tailored to handle specific problems and is one hundred quadrillion (1017) times faster than the regular supercomputer. So after the USA this makes China the second country in the world to achieve quantum primacy.
Since quantum technology is a basis technology, the speed of the future technical revolution is very heavily dependent on competence in this area. The European industry is already painfully aware of this in the context of the current dependence on imported hi-tech from Asia, for example computer chips, pharmaceutical chemicals and pre-products used in the manufacture of other hi-tech goods (for example batteries). The technological superiority over the conventional production processes used up to now is also critical for the future political sovereignty of Europe. Although this is now a subject of discussion in politics and the media, the acquisition of the necessary technical skills has still not progressed very far. It’s also questionable whether the European consumers are prepared to pay the unavoidably higher prices – for example for mobile devices, network technology, automotive and entertainment electronics. It’s certainly true to say that Europe has missed the boat with the digitalisation trend.
Quantum primacy: a foundation for the future
The global mega-corporations nowadays consist exclusively of technology and internet-based business models. They left the “old industry” giants like big oil, big steel and aerospace behind long ago. The stock market values of these tech heavyweights are now higher than the gross domestic product of the major industrial countries. The statistics alone show the huge financial power of this new quantum technology, which until now has mainly been developed by internet giants. Thanks to a clever policy of promoting the home-grown mega-corporations, China can easily keep up with the big boys here. Europe on the other hand is outclassed. Even though China’s Communist Party is now taking extreme action against some corporations like Alibaba and Didi, the People’s Republic still hasn’t worked out a concept to stop monopolies forming in the internet industry. Europe’s dependency is on the USA in terms of the e-commerce economy – but on China for the production of high-end technological goods that define our present and our future. If Europe hopes to be a part of the immense value creation scheme involving these products and services for consumers and industry, there is no alternative but to step up efforts in the European quantum technology sector. The only way for Europe to survive as an influencer of technology perspectives in this key field is through prudent liberation from China’s domination.
The development and possible applications of quantum technology are still in the early stages. The reason its potential seems so magical is because in this science of elementary particles the boundaries of time and space become blurred. The opportunities for disruptive innovations that are opening up in view of the rapidly occurring changes in this field lie outside the confines of empirical forecasts. Due to the fundamental nature of quantum mechanical effects, all areas of life will be affected by radical innovation – similar to the way things happened after the introduction of digitalisation and the internet. Complicated processes in particular are then subject to algorithmic processing. These include medical histories, preparation of legal submissions, design solutions in technology and architecture, control and direction functions in logistics and public transport, and finally planning, calculation and implementation of political and military strategies. No cultural traditions, social categories or professional groups will escape the potential disruptions.
But to enable the ambivalent magic surrounding this new beginning, huge efforts will be required in terms of technology and science. Even the possibility of fully unhackable quantum cryptography and a quantum net based on this assumes technological capabilities that only a few nations and societies possess: a cutting-edge science and research community, a high-end electronics industry and engineering developed to an equally advanced level. The step from lab-based research to the robust practical application of quantum entanglement can only be performed with immense financial commitment and transfer of knowledge. Compared with the development of standard computers, we’re currently at a level approximately equivalent to 1975. Development of a fully error-corrected and universally usable quantum computer remains a great challenge in the immediate future.
The global quantum technology race is getting harder each day and the uncertainty about the future of society is becoming increasingly important. In this context many questions remain open: what is this enormous computing power used for? Will the speed of research cause our lives to look totally different in the near future? Where will development take us in the field of quantum computing? Will the divide between the leading nations in this area and the rest of the world widen even more?
So the winner of the race for the Great Leap into the age of quantum computing is still open; however one thing’s certain – the new technologies have the potential to change the future of the world we live in massively.
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