China May Have Just Taken the Lead in the Quantum Computing Race

Participants view a quantum computing prototype model during the 2021 Quantum Industry Conference in Hefei, China, Sept. 18, 2021.

Participants view a quantum computing prototype model during the 2021 Quantum Industry Conference in Hefei, China, Sept. 18, 2021. Xinhua via Getty Images / Han Xu

China’s record-shattering processor is 1 million times faster than what Google achieved three years ago–but we are years from the finish line.

China may have taken the lead in the race to practical quantum computing with a recent announcement that it has shattered a record for solving a complex problem.

In 2019, Google reported that its 53-qubit Sycamore processor had completed in 3.3 minutes a task that would have taken a traditional supercomputer at least 2.5 days. Last October, China’s 66-qubit Zuchongzhi 2 quantum processor reportedly completed the same task 1 million times faster. That processor was developed by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Excellence in Quantum Information and Quantum Physics, in conjunction with the Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics and the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology. 

Traditional supercomputers like those of the U.S. military and the People’s Liberation Army’s 56th Research Institute are used to conduct complex simulations for equipment design, process images and signals to spot targets and points of interest, and analyze oceans of data to understand hidden trends and connections. But some tasks remain time and resource intensive, for even the tiniest computing bits require time to flip between 1 and 0.

Superconducting quantum computers can bypass physical limits by creating a superposition of the 1 and 0 values. Essentially, standard computing bits must be either a 1 or a 0. But in extremely low temperatures, the physical properties of matter undergo significant changes. Superconducting quantum computers take advantage of these changes to create qubits (quantum bits), which are not limited by the processing hurdles that traditional computers face. Qubits can be both 1 or 0, simultaneously.This promises to speed up computing immensely, enabling assaults on henceforth uncrackable problems like decrypting currently unbreakable codes, pushing AI and machine learning to new heights, and designing entirely new materials, chemicals, and medicines.

The world’s scientific and military powers are spending billions of dollars in the race to turn this promise into reality. China has notched several notable advancements in recent years. In 2020, the University of Science and Technology of China, home of leading Chinese quantum computing scholar Pan Jianwei, conducted the first space-based quantum communications, using the Micius satellite to create an ultra-secure data link between two ground stations separated by more than 1,000 miles. 

In October, a Chinese team reported that its light-based Jiuzhang 2 processor could complete a task in one millisecond that a conventional computer would require 30 trillion years to finish. This breakthrough marked a new top speed for a quantum processor whose qubits are  light-based, not superconducting. The  quantum states needed for the superconducting computers to function are delicate, can be unstable, and are prone to causing large numbers of errors. However, light-based supercomputers also have their drawbacks, as it is difficult to increase the number of photons in this type of quantum computer, due to their delicate state. It remains to be seen which method will be more prevalent.

These achievements stem from Beijing’s emphasis on quantum computing research. China is reportedly investing $10 billion in the field, and says it increased national R&D spending by 7 percent last year. By contrast, the U.S. government devoted $1.2 billion to quantum computing research in 2018 under a new national strategy. Last year, the Senate passed a bill to create a Directorate of Technology and Innovation at the National Science Foundation, and add $29 billion for research into quantum computing and artificial intelligence from 2022 to 2026, but it awaits reconciliation with a similar bill passed by the House last month.

Chinese researchers, firms, and agencies now hold more patents in quantum tech than does the United States (although U.S. companies have more in the specific field of quantum computing), amid allegations that these advancements benefit from stolen U.S. work. A year ago, the Commerce Department blacklisted seven supercomputing entities for their association with the People’s Liberation Army. Further, there is evidence that the Chinese government has been stealing encrypted U.S. government and commercial data, warehousing it against the day when quantum computers can break today’s encryption.

We are still a few years away from seeing a real advent of quantum computing. Currently, most quantum computers are able to coherently operate with around 50 qubits. To realize quantum computing’s full potential in codebreaking, for example, would require qubit amounts in the thousands. But progress is being made. IBM reportedly produced a 127-qubit superconducting quantum computer in November, intends to unveil a 400-qubit processor this year, and aims to produce a 1,000-qubit processor in 2023. 

Given the enormous strategic potential of quantum computing in a wide variety of fields, this competition is set to only grow more intense in the near future. Whether the U.S. can keep pace remains to be seen. 

Thomas Corbett is a research analyst with BluePath Labs. His areas of focus include Chinese foreign relations, emerging technology, and international economics.

P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America and the author of multiple books on technology and security, including Wired for War, Ghost Fleet, Burn-In, and LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.