China set for quantum leaps in spook-proof communications
China is on track to launch the world’s biggest spook-proof quantum communications system in the next six months, one that could eventually cover Hong Kong, a leading Chinese scientist said on Friday.
Beijing will send the world’s first quantum communications satellite into space in June – around the same time as it aims to put the world’s longest quantum communications network into service, according to Pan Jianwei, the projects’ chief scientist.
On the sidelines of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, Pan said the network would stretch 2,000km from Beijing to Shanghai, and be the largest and most extensive quantum communications system in the world.
Quantum technology is considered to be unbreakable and impossible to hack. It encrypts messages with a key of quantum particles and detects third-party attempts to intercept the particles.
Pan is a physicist and vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province. His team’s groundbreaking experiment on quantum teleportation was voted the most important breakthrough in the field this year by the London-based Institute of Physics.
Pan said the country’s leadership had also designated it as a top priority science development project.
He said the projects’ applications would be experimental and small scale at first.
“But we hope the Chinese network can be extended to cover the whole globe in one or two decades,” Pan said.
He said the team was working with Alibaba, ZTE and other Chinese tech companies to commercialise the technology, and potential non-government clients included banks, financial institutes and research centres. He said they were “actively seeking cooperation with the city’s government and universities”.
“Hong Kong as a telecommunications and financial centre is ideal for quantum communication. We are talking with the Hong Kong government and universities to see how we can bring it to Hong Kong,” he said.
Pan said the quantum satellite could also benefit China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy.
Meanwhile, China is also investing heavily in developing quantum computing, a potentially game-changing technology that can do many calculations simultaneously trillions of times faster than the most powerful supercomputer today.
Pan said a Chinese quantum computer could match the power of the Tianhe 2 supercomputer in some areas in the next five years. The Tianhe 2 is the world’s fastest supercomputer and was also built by Chinese scientists.
“I think it will still take a decade or two to see quantum computers being used in everyday life and enter the mass market. But I’m confident we will see it in our lifetime. Our age will be the quantum age,” he said.
Pan said China was a world leader in quantum technology but other countries were catching up.
“We are now taking the lead. I hope we won’t be behind a decade down the track,” he said.
Dai Yuhong, professor of applied mathematics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said society was not ready for a “quantum age”.
Dai said the first users of quantum computers would have a huge unfair advantage in areas such as the financial market.
“Quantum technology could be a monster if we know not how to control its power. So far, nobody knows,” he said.
“Let’s hope the physicists are too optimistic and the first practical quantum computer is still decades away.”
Luo Donggen, professor of neuroscience at Tsinghua University, said he was interested in quantum technology’s applications in the life sciences, such as building artificial brains to simulate or even overtake human brains.
But the risks posed by the technology should also be assessed, he said.