Forget the trade war, China wants to win the arms race in computing
As the US and China threaten to impose tariffs on goods from aluminium to wine, the two nations are waging a separate economic battle that could determine who owns the next wave of computing.
Chinese universities and US technology companies such as International Business Machines and Microsoft are racing to develop quantum computers, a type of processing that’s forecast to be so powerful it can transform how drug makers, agriculture companies and auto manufacturers discover compounds and materials.
Quantum computing uses the movement of subatomic particles to process data in amounts that modern computers can’t handle. Mostly theoretical now, the technology is expected to be able to perform calculations that make today’s computers look akin to an abacus.
While overall spending by China is unknown, its government is building a US$10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui Province, which is slated to open in 2020. US-funded research in quantum is about US$200 million a year, according to a July 2016 government report, and some researchers and companies don’t believe that’s enough.
One “killer app” may be encryption, the code scrambling technology that secures modern global commerce and communications. China, Chinese universities and western financial institutions are rushing to patent more ways to use quantum technology for encryption, a study by research firm Patinformatics found.
“We’re talking about encrypting data so it can’t be broken, certainly not by a classical computer,” said Tony Trippe, managing director of Dublin, Ohio-based Patinformatics. “It would be an unhackable system.”
At the same time, it could break encryption that was on a classical computer. “An organisation or a nation that had quantum computer technologies would have a significantly easier time of wreaking havoc on other systems,” he said.
US President Donald Trump accused the Chinese government in March of stealing intellectual property by forcing American companies to share their most valuable secrets and sign joint venture agreements with local firms if they want to operate in China, although there are no specific allegations regarding quantum computers.
China has also been aggressive in pushing home-grown innovation as it supports companies in obtaining patents and trademarks around the world, and has increased its research funding. In its annual scorecard, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) called China “the second largest scientific powerhouse,” behind the US
“Over time, quantum in the field of computation is so important is that it will redefine the category of computers themselves,” said Dario Gil, vice-president of IBM’s Artificial Intelligence research. “It is the future of computing.”
IBM’s inventions may be having the most impact on the nascent field, when judged by the number of times its research has been cited by others in their patent applications. The Armonk, New York-based company already has developed computers being tested by customers, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the Energy Department’s biggest lab, as well as finance companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Barclays, Gil said.
Intel, which started its own programme two years ago, said the technology promises to be “transformational.”
“There are many tough problems to solve before quantum computing is a commercial reality,” said Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware at Intel. “Some of these problems involve materials science, quantum chip design and manufacturing -- those are sweet-spot problems for Intel.”
While there will still be a place for what’s being called “classical computers” -- a category that includes modern smartphones and even super computers -- the quantum computers could have “an infinite number of applications” in the fields of life sciences, chemistry and agriculture, said IBM’s Gil.
It’s too early to say which company or country will be the leader in quantum computers, though at this stage it looks like US companies will excel in hardware while Chinese and Japanese ones are focused on the software and applications, Patinformatics’ Trippe said.
“Japanese and Chinese companies aren’t as concerned about building them as they are about how they’ll be used,” Trippe said. “They’ve started to patent the potential. The next five years are going to be pretty fascinating.”
The US China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by Congress in 2000 to assess national security implications of bilateral trade between the countries, said in its most recent report that China “has closed the technological gap” with the US in quantum information science, a sector Americans have long dominated, “due to a concerted strategy by the Chinese government and inconsistent and unstable levels of R&D funding and limited government coordination by the United States.”
Studies by the US Chamber of Commerce and Bloomberg have independently shown that China is rising in its overall score for innovation, which includes education, government research and the number of patents. The World Intellectual Property Organisation reported March 21 that China is closing in on the US in filing international patent applications.
Quantum physics is one area in which the Chinese government, through its Ministry of Science and Technology, is beefing up its technological prowess, according to a report by the US Trade Representative that laid the groundwork for Trump’s tariff plans. The China Academy of Sciences and Peking University are among the Chinese research firms seeking more patents on quantum information technology, according to Patinformatics.
The Chinese government invested by giving a lot of money to companies and researchers to “replicate what we did in the US and elsewhere,” said Carl J. Williams, deputy director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. “They’ve come a long ways.”
The Chinese researchers are focused on encryption, based on their patent applications. In August 2016, China’s state news agency said the government had launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite, and a year later claimed to have sent the first “unbreakable” code from space.
“That should be very scary,” said Jonathan Dowling, co-director of Louisiana State University’s Hearne Institute for Theoretical Physics, “at least to the intelligence agencies.”
In the US, the Department of Energy, Naval Research Lab and defence contractor Northrop Grumman are among the government entities or contractors researching quantum computers. Overall, though, the US government has cut back on its own funding of computing and cryptography hardware, Dowling said.
A July 2016 report by the National Science and Technology Council under former President Barack Obama recommended it be “considered a priority for federal coordination and investment.”
In the coming age of quantum, it’s an open question whether federal funding will enable the U.S to maintain the edge it’s had during the PC era and smartphone wars. Scott Crowder, IBM’s chief technology officer for quantum computing, told a House panel in October that “the US government investment in driving this critical technology is not sufficient to stay competitive.”
LSU’s Dowling said it could mean the US comes out the loser in the quantum race.
“What we’re seeing is a bunch of different things going on at once with no overall organisation,” LSU’s Dowling said, “unlike in China, where they are exactly sure what they’re doing.”