Quantum computing
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A Sycamore chip mounted on the printed circuit board during the packaging process. Photo: AFP

Chinese researchers hail Google’s quantum computing breakthrough, call for more funds to catch up to US

  • Chinese researchers working on 50-bit quantum computing technology are expected to achieve ‘quantum superiority’ by the end of next year
  • While Google and Chinese scientists celebrated the breakthrough, American rivals including IBM and Intel cast doubt over the claims

Chinese scientists have applauded Google’s claim of a breakthrough in quantum computing despite doubts from its American rivals, calling for continuous investment so they do not fall further behind the US in a field that promises to render supercomputers obsolete.

Sycamore, Google’s 53-bit quantum computer, performed a calculation in 200 seconds that would take the world’s fastest supercomputer, the IBM Summit, 10,000 years to perform, according to a blog post by Google that was also published in Nature magazine last Wednesday. With Sycamore, Google claims to have reached quantum supremacy, the point where a quantum computer can perform calculations that surpass anything the most advanced supercomputers today can do.

Guoping Guo, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China and founder and chief scientist of Chinese start-up Origin Quantum, said the achievement was of “epoch-making significance”.

“Quantum supremacy is the turning point that has proven the superiority of quantum computers over classical computers,” said Guo. “If we fall behind in the next stage of general-purpose quantum computing, it would mean the difference between cold weapons and firearms.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai with one of the company’s quantum computers. Photo: AFP

Quantum computers, which take a new approach to processing information, are theoretically capable of making calculations that are orders of magnitude faster than what the world’s most powerful supercomputers can do.

Google achieves ‘quantum supremacy’ with new supercomputer

“With this breakthrough we’re now one step closer to applying quantum computing to – for example – design more efficient batteries, create fertiliser using less energy, and figure out what molecules might make effective medicines,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in a separate post on Wednesday.

While Google celebrated its breakthrough, rivals including IBM and Intel cast doubt over the claims. IBM said Google did not tap the full power of its Summit supercomputer, which could have processed Google’s calculation in 2.5 days or faster with ideal simulation.

In a statement Intel said quantum practicality is much further down the road.

Regardless of the different spin each company put on the achievement, Guo said the huge gap between 200 seconds and 2.5 days was sufficient for Google to claim quantum supremacy.

Other Chinese researchers in the field pointed to the significance of the new technologies Google used in the experiment rather than the claim of quantum supremacy itself, such as the adjustable coupler used to connect qubits.

“At this stage, the problems that quantum supremacy can solve have no practical value, but [Google] has demonstrated its ability to perform a computation on such a scale of 53 qubits,” said Huang Heliang, a researcher in superconducting quantum computing at the University of Science and Technology of China. “It is foreseeable that it could lead to breakthroughs and applications in fields such as machine learning in the near future.”

A qubit, or quantum bit, is the basic unit of quantum information, similar to the binary bit in classical computing.

Google is among a group of US technology companies as well as Chinese universities and companies racing to develop quantum computers amid intensifying technology competition between the world’s two biggest economies.

China must rein in state firms to gain upper hand in US tech war

China filed almost twice as many patents as the US in 2017 for quantum technology, a category that includes communications and cryptology devices, according to market research firm Patinformatics. The US, however, leads the world in patents relating to the most prized segment of the field – quantum computers – thanks to heavy investment by IBM, Google, Microsoft and others.

Huang, who acknowledged China was still trying to catch up to the US because of a late start, said that falling behind in the current stage may not have a significant impact since quantum technology is still in its early days of development.

“But we have to be aware that the gap could easily widen if we don’t step up support and investment,” he said.

Chinese researchers working on 50-bit quantum computing technology are expected to achieve quantum supremacy by the end of next year, he added.

Pan Jianwei (right) and Lu Chaoyang, two leading scientists in China's quantum computing industry. Photo: Handout

The US was pouring US$200 million a year into research into the field, according to a 2016 government report.

Guo believes China is three to five years behind the US and Europe in breakthroughs, talent acquisition and other areas. He said the gap could be widening because most scientists in the field are going through the phase of publishing papers on basic research. The all-important application research phase was still burning through funding without any hope of commercialisation on the horizon, he added.

China has been stepping up efforts for its quantum ambitions in recent years but does not reveal total investment funding. Under the country’s 13th five-year plan introduced in 2016, Beijing launched a “megaproject” for quantum communications and computing which aimed to achieve breakthroughs by 2030.

In 2017 China started building the world’s largest quantum research facility in Hefei, central China’s Anhui province, with the goal of developing a quantum computer. The National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences is a US$10 billion project due to open in 2020.

Chinese tech giants, including Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent – collectively known as BAT – and telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, have also recruited some of the country’s top scientists and set up labs for the development of quantum technologies.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.