Dec 11, 2021 - Technology

Running the international quantum race

China quantum computing conference
Visitors look at an Alibaba quantum computer at a conference in Hangzhou, China, in October. Photo: Long Wei/VCG via Getty Images

The race for quantum supremacy isn't just between tech companies, but between nation-states as well.

Why it matters: The first country to produce effective, working quantum computers will have a key advantage in economics, defense and cybersecurity — and the U.S., China, and Europe are all competing.

What's happening: Last month, the Commerce Department added a dozen Chinese companies to a trade blacklist in an effort to prevent emerging U.S. technologies from being used for quantum computing efforts that would boost Beijing's military.

  • It was the latest move in a tech trade war between Washington and Beijing that has national security implications, and one that is increasingly spilling over into the realm of quantum computing.
  • "The United States is quite a ways ahead in many areas [of quantum] and we have a lot of talent," says Laura Thomas, a former CIA case officer and the director of national security solutions for ColdQuanta.
  • "But China is catching up in closing that gap very quickly," she says

The big picture: One of the clearest uses of quantum computing is to eventually break the complex mathematical problems used to encrypt information of all kinds on the internet, including sensitive government data.

  • That's not yet possible with today's quantum computers, but it could well be within a decade or less. In the meantime, nations are likely intercepting and storing data now with the expectation that they'll be able to decrypt it in the future.

Between the lines: While U.S. companies generally have the lead on building better quantum computers, China has invested massively in the industry, including an $11 billion national laboratory for quantum information sciences.

  • Chinese researchers have made breakthroughs on quantum communications, including via satellite, and Chinese companies dominate patent applications for quantum cryptography.
  • But in part because Chinese researchers don't publish as often as their Western counterparts — and because travel in and out of the country has been highly limited during COVID-19 — "we don't have a lot of visibility into what they're doing," says Peter Chapman, president and CEO of quantum computer company IonQ.

What to watch: Progress on American efforts to develop post-quantum cryptography standards that would resist more powerful quantum computers, as well as research from the five new quantum institutes created by the White House last year.

The bottom line: "The economy for the next hundred years will be driven by quantum," says Chapman. "So it's not a game we want to lose."

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