(Newsweek) China’s ambition in quantum technology has caused something of a Sputnik moment in the U.S., nearly as ominous as the Russian satellite in 1957 that kicked off the race to the moon. It wasn’t long ago that Chinese engineers were perceived as copycats. That is no longer the case. The long-term worry is that the U.S. loses its technological edge.
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Paul Scharre, director of technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. “Basically the federal government has taken its foot off of the gas pedal in terms of innovation in the U.S.,” he says. “While we’re doing so, other nations like China caught up.”
Dozens of U.S. engineering teams, from big companies like Google, IBM and Amazon to universities and startups, are racing to build a full-scale working quantum computer. China is reportedly spending $10 billion on the effort, building a center devoted to quantum computing and artificial intelligence; the U.S. government has committed $1 billion; and corporate and military budgets likely hold many millions more—for instance, Google and IBM are each thought to have spent in excess of $100 million.
The resources required to pull off a quantum computer would seem to favor the Googles and the IBMs of the world—and China. Google’s Hartmut Neven, head of its quantum computing effort, told a gathering of the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year that building an error correcting quantum computer would cost more than $3 billion.
Last year a team from Google achieved what it called “quantum supremacy” when its quantum computer performed a calculation faster than a conventional computer could. “Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output,” wrote Google’s John Martinis and Sergio Boixo in a blog post. And earlier this month, a team under the direction of Pan Jianwei at the University of Science and Technology in China (USTC), in the journal Science, said its quantum computer succeeded in performing a calculation 100 trillion times faster than a conventional computer could—surpassing Google’s achievement by a factor of 10 billion, according to the Xinhua.
Regardless of whatever shortcomings Jiazhang may have, it clearly demonstrates that China is a formidable innovator. Neven issued a grim warning about the danger of the U.S. being beaten in the race to develop a quantum computer. “We are indeed most worried [about] an as of yet unknown competitor [from] China [who will] beat us to the race to an error-correcting machine, because China has the ability to steer enormous resources in a direction that’s deemed strategically important.”
While China’s ambitions have grown, the technology aims of the U.S. seem diminished. “There is a mentality of complacency,” says Elsa Kania, a china expert at CNAS. “There’s a sense and an ideological commitment to the notion that the market can do it all, that there’s no role for government, and a backlash against investments in science and education.
In the U.S., plans are afoot to introduce new encryption methods that cannot be broken even by a quantum computer. The NSA announced in 2015 that it intended to switch eventually to an alternative, quantum-resistant scheme, as yet undetermined. “It is now clear that the current Internet security measures and the cryptography behind them will not withstand the new computational capabilities that quantum computers will bring,” an NSA spokesperson told Quanta’s Natalie Wolchover.