In August 2016, China sent the world’s first quantum satellite into space from a launchpad in the Gobi Desert. Micius, which circles the earth at an altitude of 500km, is a powerful signal of intent – a starting gun for the technological race that could define the next century.
Quantum computing has huge potential. Instead of bits – which are either 1s or 0s – quantum computers use qubits, which can exist in more than one state. This means that they’re able to store more information using less energy than traditional computers, and makes them well suited to complex calculations that normal machines struggle with, like simulating certain chemical reactions, crunching prime numbers, or breaking complex cryptographic codes.
With Micius, Chinese researchers are attempting to use a different type of quantum technology to develop new forms of secure communications that would be unbreakable. Micius is being used to share cryptography keys, which are used to encode and decode secure communications.
Ordinarily, these keys are vulnerable to interception, but Micius uses photons in a quantum-superposition state – it’s impossible to read them without changing what they say, so you can’t copy or intercept a key sent in this manner.
In 2017, scientists used the satellite to hold a quantum-encrypted video call between Chinese and Austrian scientists. When Micius launched, the project’s lead researcher Jian-Wei Pan summed up the project’s importance. "I think we have started a worldwide quantum space race," he said. It’s a race that China is desperate to win.
The competition to develop quantum technologies is fierce. Nations, such as China and the US are involved, as well as some of the world's biggest companies and organisations, including: Google, Nasa, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin and Alibaba.
Quantum technology could break the strongest forms of encryption and provide a big jump in computing power, with potentially huge political and economic implications. The tech has the potential to easily break the encryption used to protect financial data and military secrets. And China is racing ahead, in a field that has historically been dominated by European and American researchers.
The Chinese government has made quantum the focus of a "megaproject," and set its sights on major breakthroughs in quantum communications and quantum computing. It is reportedly investing $10bn in building the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei.
“In the last five years, China has invested very heavily in quantum technologies,” says Robert Young, director of the Lancaster Quantum Technology Centre, and an adjunct professor at the Institute of Fundamental and Frontier Science in Chengdu. “It has taken the lead and it has done so relatively quickly.”
The number of patents filed by Chinese companies relating to quantum computing has shot up in the last few years. In 2014, there were a similar number of patents filed in the United States and China, but by 2017 China filed almost twice as many, according to Patinformatics.
China’s quantum ambition has parallels with similar investmentsin artificial intelligence, and stems partly from a desire to position the country as the technological leader of the decades the come. “China basically missed out on the digital revolution and that really set them and their economy back,” says Young. “It doesn’t want to be caught napping again.”
Jian-Wei Pan agrees. “With modern information science, China has been a learner and a follower,” he says. “Now, with quantum technology, if we try our best we can be one of the main players.” Pan has been dubbed "the father of quantum" by the scientific journal Nature, and is one of two key individuals behind China’s advances in quantum technology. The other is Edward Snowden.
The quantum realm
In 2013, Snowden’s leaks from the NSA revealed the full extent of the US intelligence services capabilities and activities in China. Analysis by the Washington think-tank link url="https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNASReport-Quantum-Tech_FINAL.pdf?mtime=20180912133406"]Centre for a New American Security[/link] says these revelations spooked the Chinese government into a search for new, home-grown cybersecurity solutions.
That’s why the bulk of China’s initial progress has been in the field of secure quantum communications – through projects such as Micius, as well as a ground-based quantum network in the northern province of Shandong. “In the field of quantum communications we are ahead of our colleagues over the world,” says Pan, who has said his work was given new impetus and urgency by Snowden’s disclosures.
When it comes to quantum computing, the picture is a little more muddled. Building a quantum computer is an immensely difficult and delicate task, because the slightest environmental interference can nudge qubits out of the state of superposition that makes them so useful for plotting complex, probabilistic paths.
Quantum computers have to be very carefully shielded, and most technologies for building them need to be kept at temperatures close to absolute zero. Right now, the best quantum devices – which are being built by North American companies like Google, IBM and D-Wave – are yet to top 100 qubits, and have error rates as high as 50 per cent due to ‘misfiring qubits’. “Things will start to get interesting beyond an academic around the 100-qubit mark, but you probably need 1,000 before things get really exciting,” says Young.
US firms claim they’ll have a working quantum computer within five to ten years, but in China estimates are more conservative. “We have to solve these fundamental problems,” says Pan. “For me it will take some 20 or 30 years.”
Chinese companies such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu have also entered the quantum race, but they’re a little late to the party. “Some years ago it was quite difficult to convince these e-commerce companies in China to invest in this kind of research,” says Pan. “But influenced by Google and IBM or Intel and Microsoft - all the Chinese e-commerce companies now have their own quantum technology projects.”
Chinese efforts can’t yet match the performance of their US rivals in terms of raw number of qubits. However, last year Chinese scientists did set a world record by linking 18 qubits together in a quantum entanglement, an interconnected state that’s required for quantum computers to actually be used for calculations.
That’s in line with the general pattern of developments. “There’s no real evidence that the Chinese have made breakthroughs on new ways to generate qubits – that’s fundamental basic science and there’s only so many ways that’s going to be done,” says Tony Trippe, managing director of Patinformatics. “The Chinese dominance in patenting within the last four years has primarily been in the area of application.”
Although it’s behind in terms of creating quantum hardware, China is making progress when it comes to figuring out how we will actually use quantum computers once they arrive. According to Young, it’s not really clear what the most promising applications of quantum computing will be – there are likely useful applications for quantum computing that we can’t even conceive of at the moment. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll have quantum chips in our personal computers or laptops – instead, we’ll probably access centrally located quantum computers via the cloud. In fact, IBM already offers a service like this.
Where China’s financial muscle could prove key is in the next phase of quantum computing. “It’s important in terms of creating a quantum environment in China,” says Artur Ekert, a professor of quantum physics at the University of Oxford, who proposed the theory behind Micius. “It’s not good enough to invent a telephone, for example, if it’s just you who has the unit and you have no one to call. You have to have the whole infrastructure, the whole pyramid – not just a bunch of wacky physicists, but also quantum engineers, computer scientists, cryptographers, people who can sell it.”
Ekert compares China’s approach to NASA’s Apollo project, which put a man on the moon in the 1960s. “It’s not clear which particular quantum technology – whether it’s superconducting circuits, trapped ions, or something else – is going to work,” he says. You need to put under one roof many people who have expertise in complementary areas.”
Quantum of solace
But perhaps Apollo – born from a fierce rivalry between the USA and the USSR – is not the right comparison to make. It’s tempting to paint the development of quantum computing and cryptography as a zero-sum game – China vs America for the global technological crown. But it’s not quite like that.
Pan got his grounding in the technology in Europe, and Chinese researchers have been working closely with others in Austria to develop Micius and related technologies. Some researchers contacted for this article were en route to South Africa for a collaborative workshop, to share ideas with their international colleagues.
But, there has been a slight shift in attitude as quantum technology has moved from academia into the world of application. “Five years ago I would have said that it was collaborative, but in the last five years there’s been a bit of a bubble,” says Ekert.
Cybersecurity experts live in fear of ‘Q-Day’ – the date when a quantum computer is developed that can break most modern cryptographic standards. If one country gets there first, it could cause problems – the CNAS report talks of ‘quantum surprise,’ when one country develops technology that others don’t even know about.
“A healthy degree of concern would be justified,” says Ekert. “This field is just too important to have one particular region too far ahead.” For Young, the challenge is so complex and expensive that it will be hard for any one nation to steal a march on its rivals. “I think it’s very difficult these days to keep anything hidden.”
The field is fragmenting, with different research groups trying varied approaches, and countries putting their resources behind a diverse range of projects. Since 2016, when the Chinese government placed quantum at the heart of its 13th five-year-plan, Europe and the United States have made their own investments.
The European Union is putting €1bn into its Quantum Technologies Flagship programme, which kicked into gear earlier this month with funding announced for twenty new projects. In the United States, a crossparty team have been working on legislation to inject $1.25bn into quantum research and development, although the results of the midterm elections leave its future in doubt.
In China, they’re focussing on building a multi-satellite quantum network, and creating a quantum simulator to tackle scientific problems. In the US, the big tech companies are focussed on pushing up the qubit-count and bringing down the error rate on quantum computers. The UK is at the forefront of quantum algorithms.
“The really exciting thing, and the reason that the Chinese are investing in this is that they don’t know what the potential will be,” says Young. “It’s clear this is going to be the next revolutionary technology, it’s clear there’s going to be a whole plethora of interesting devices and they’re investing in that potential.”
China’s investments have certainly put it in a strong position, but it’s not clear which approaches will work, and what they could lead to – the big breakthrough could come from the $10bn quantum hub in Hefei, or from a relatively small investment elsewhere.
One country could take the lead, but for quantum to become a truly revolutionary technology will require a global effort. “It’s not possible for this to be developed by a single country,” says Pan. “We could have a race, but people need to talk and collaborate with each other.”