China science

China’s quantum development plan is aggressive, and Donald Trump wants one just like it

After breakthroughs by Chinese scientists over the past decade, Washington issues commitment to ‘maintaining American leadership in quantum information science’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 1:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 7:30am

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And after observing China’s state-led push to become a world leader in the field of quantum technology, it seems the United States is about to pay Beijing a considerable compliment and follow suit.

For about a decade China has been committed to increasing its capabilities in the field. In that time it has funded major projects, brought scientists from across the country to work together and encouraged students to enter the field.

While this high level of government involvement has led to a number of breakthroughs for China, it also stands in stark contrast to the low-key approach adopted by the US in the period.

But according to a document released by Washington earlier this week, that could all be about to change.

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Quantum science is now a “nascent pillar of the American research and development enterprise”, the White House said in a white paper on a national strategy for quantum research.

“The Trump administration is committed to maintaining and expanding American leadership in quantum information science,” the document said, referring to US President Donald Trump.

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“Specifically, the United States will create a visible, systematic, national approach to quantum information research and development.”

Across the country, quantum research will be “organised under a single brand” and coordinated by a committee under the executive office of the president of the United States, it said.

The committee will identify “Grand Challenges” and unite national efforts and resources to solve “major problems in fundamental and applied quantum sciences with federal investment”, it said, adding that the government will also “address education in the area of quantum science at an early stage, including elementary, middle and high school levels”.

What [the US] proposes is what we’ve been doing
Li Hailou, Chinese physicist

The document echoes the curriculum reforms introduced across the United States after the former Soviet Union launched the world’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.

Washington said it would also build new and expand existing research facilities, including manufacturing plants, “to rapidly advance quantum technology development”.

“Foreign countries,” it said, “are making investments and seeking to build their own quantum information science base in competition with the United States”.

That is certainly true in China, which is home to the world’s longest land-based quantum communication network – running between Beijing and Shanghai – and its biggest quantum research facility, in Hefei, capital of southeast China’s Anhui province.

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The country has also set up a joint research laboratory with large private internet companies and actively sought quantum technology applications for in the areas of government, defence, business and industry.

Even China’s official propaganda machine has pitched in, showcasing the progress achieved by the nation’s scientists in increasing public awareness and interest in quantum physics.

In contrast, the US government’s approach to quantum science has, until now, been relatively subdued. Rather than a centralised government effort, funding has been issued by separate state agencies, research institutes and universities.

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Most of the investment in quantum research in recent years has come from private companies, like Google, IBM and Intel.

Li Haiou, a physicist at the Key Laboratory of Quantum Information, University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, said that after reading the white paper, he believed the US was “copying China”.

“What they propose is what we’ve been doing,” a centralised effort with intensive investment in large infrastructure facilities to achieve scientific and engineering breakthroughs, he said.

While an increase in rivalry between China and the US would be detrimental to future exchanges between researchers from the two countries, the added competition might also provide a boost for the advancement and application of quantum research, Li said.

“Large-scale quantum computers for some special purpose calculations are under construction and they can be deployed in a few years,” he said.

“After a decade or more, consumer-grade quantum products as easy to use as mobile phones may hit the market. Competition between countries can accelerate this process.”

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One of China’s earlier achievements was the world’s first quantum satellite, which tested the ghostly phenomenon of quantum entanglement at unprecedented distances, while scientists also succeeded in controlling a record number of entangled quantum particles in experiments that could help them to develop a powerful code-breaking computer.

Chinese scientists also recently tested one of their newest applications – quantum radar technology – on board warships.

The technology has the potential to offer a huge defence advantage as it can detect movements that would be missed by traditional radar systems, the researchers told the South China Morning Post this week.

With the new radar system in place, Chinese warships would have the ability to detect US stealth fighters like the F-22 or F-35, one said.

“The battle would be won before the fight.”