U.S. and other Western scientists voice awe, and even alarm, at China’s quickening advances and spending on quantum communications and computing, revolutionary technologies that could give a huge military and commercial advantage to the nation that conquers them.
The concerns echo — although to a lesser degree — the shock in the West six decades ago when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, sparking a space race.
In quick succession, China in recent months has utilized a quantum satellite to transmit ultra-secure data, inaugurated a 1,243-mile quantum link between Shanghai and Beijing, and announced a $10 billion quantum computing center.
“To me, what is alarming is the level of coordination of what they’ve done,” said Christopher Monroe, a physicist and pioneer in quantum communication at the University of Maryland.
Perhaps more than the accomplishments of the Chinese scientists, it is the resources that China is pouring into the research into how atoms, photons and other basic molecular matter can harness, process and transmit information.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that their scientists are better,” said Martin Laforest, a physicist and senior manager at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It’s just that when they say, ‘We need a billion dollars to do this,’ bam, the money comes.”
The engineering hurdles that China has cleared for quantum communication means that the United States will lag in that area for years.
“The general feeling is that they’ll get there before us,” said Rene Copeland, a high-performance computer expert who is president of D-Wave (Government) Inc., a Vancouver-area company that uses aspects of quantum computing in its systems.
But building a functioning quantum computer sets forth different kinds of challenges than mastering quantum communication, and may involve creating materials and processes that do not yet exist. Once thought to be decades off, scientists now presume a quantum computer may be built in a decade or less. The stakes are so high that advances by the U.S. government remain secret.
“We don’t know exactly where the United States is. I fervently hope that a lot of this work is taking place in a classified setting,” said R. Paul Stimers, a lawyer at K&L Gates, a Washington law firm, who specializes in emerging technologies. “It is a race.”
Pure quantum computers remain largely theoretical although simple prototypes exist. Many designs call for them to operate in super cold conditions, bordering on absolute zero, or around minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than outer space, without any noise or micro movements that can cause malfunction.
What has made them the Holy Grail for nations and private industry is that quantum computers, in theory, are magnitudes better at sifting huge amounts of data than the binary processors that power mainframes, desktops and even smart phones today. They also can process algorithms that break all widely used encryption.
Rather than doing a series of millions of computations, based on binary options of ones and zeros, quantum computers employ particles that exist in an infinite number of “superpositions” of the two states simultaneously, a condition that towering physicist Albert Einstein once labeled as “spooky.”
A quantum computer “can feel all the possibilities at once,” said Warner A. Miller, a physicist at Florida Atlantic University, who, like the others, spoke last week at a forum on quantum computing at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington.
China splashed into the news in June when it announced that a satellite and a ground station had communicated through “entangled” quantum particles. Entangled particles, even if separated by thousands of miles, act in unison. Any change in one particle will induce a change in the other, almost as if a single particle existed in multiple places at once.
Such long-distance quantum communication smashed records, occurring over 745 miles, far beyond the mile or so scientists had tested previously, and signaled Chinese mastery over a form of communication deemed ultra-secure and unhackable.
“I read that on a Sunday and went, ‘oh sh-t,’” said Gregory S. Clark, an Australian-born mathematician who is chief executive of Symantec Corp., a global cybersecurity company with headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Neither the U.S. military nor private industry is known to have such a capability.
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