The 75-minute Skype call between Pan Jianwei in Beijing and his former doctoral supervisor Anton Zeilinger in Vienna on September 29, 2017 was anything but ordinary. Supported by a Chinese satellite installed with a quantum device, the exchange was supposed to be private because any attempts to hack, interrupt or eavesdrop were scientifically bound to fail. And yet it was also very public moment, as physicists and governments around the world were all watching, knowing its success marked a technological breakthrough that could shape the next century.
Until now, cryptography has been all about creating mathematical puzzles that are beyond any computing power to solve. But the call between Pan and Zeilinger was different because it was safeguarded by the laws of quantum physics. One key theory is that light particles – also known as photons – can take on a state of superposition, meaning they can represent multiple combinations of zeros and ones simultaneously. Such quantum states, also known as quantum bits or qubits, are fragile. The implication is that if a hacker tries to tamper with an encrypted quantum exchange (where the decryption key is in photons over fibre optic) the qubits will be altered, leaving behind a telltale sign of the unsolicited activity. To all intents and purposes, messages sent through quantum communications networks like Pan’s are indecipherable.
Also known as quantum key distribution (QKD), such ultra-secure communication systems have existed since at least 2004, according to Inside Science, a US online news outlet. But they worked only across short distances, restricted by how well they manipulated the law of quantum entanglement. The call between Pan and Zeilinger, however, demonstrated the possibility of ground-to-space quantum teleportation, stretching the permissible range of quantum entanglement to a record 7,600 kilometres.
“At a time when most practitioners were still happy to get quantum information safely across a lab bench, Pan was already starting to think about how to teleport it across the planet,” commented Nature, a leading science journal, adding that the feat was made possible by a satellite that Pan proposed to build back in 2003 as part of his vision for a global-scale quantum internet. Should Pan’s grand vision be realised, the world’s quantum computers – which process massive and complex datasets more efficiently than classical computers – would then be connected on a single grid, ushering in an era governed by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The US is still ahead in quantum computing: Google last year unveiled a quantum processor with 72 qubits; and IBM has a quantum processor capable of manipulating 50 qubits. Chinese researchers are now working on 24-qubit processors but are striving to catch up quickly. Pan’s team achieved ‘only’ an 18-qubit entanglement last year.
Hailing from a rural area in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Pan, 49, was born before the era of China’s reform and opening up began, and was brought up in great poverty. “Happiness was that coat of lard on the corn paste,” he once told a group of students at Tsinghua University.
But his childhood was not short of inspiration, thanks to his parents who he says always gave him free rein to follow his heart and nurture his inquisitive scientific mind. He was offered a place at Zhejiang University that would have enabled him to bypass the stressful college entrance exam (gaokao) – but turned it down because he didn’t want to major in economics and management. Instead he sat the gaokao and got his desired place at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), also known as China’s Caltech. Here he studied modern physics and as an avid reader of Albert Einstein developed a huge interest in quantum mechanics.
Einstein had a profound effect on Pan during his early years. “Einstein’s prose… makes me feel that I can derive from simple facts universal principles, which are constant – present and future,” Sohu.com quoted Pan as saying.
At the age of 26 Pan furthered his studies at the University of Vienna in Austria and worked at a lab that was run by Zeilinger – the scientist at the other end of the 2017 satellite call.
“When Pan came to me as a young student, he was a theoretical physicist. He had not done any experiments before. But I very soon realised he had the gift for doing experiments,” Zeilinger told China Daily, noting that Pan was highly motivated in finding solutions to problems and pushing the frontiers of science. He was particularly impressed with Pan’s ambitions for his home country, recalling that on the first occasion they met, Pan said his dream was to build in China a world-leading lab like Zeilinger’s.
Pan’s dream came true in 2001, when he returned to his alma mater USTC and established a quantum physics laboratory with funding from the government. It soon became the training ground for quantum physicists. Many of its graduates later attended the best science schools in the West.
According to Chinese media, Pan occasionally gives lab tours to Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, who takes a keen interest in his work. During a grand ceremony to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up last December, Pan was one of the 100 Chinese nationals honoured as a “reform pioneer”.
Of the different quantum technologies, Pan’s team focused on information teleportation, a process reminiscent of the movie Star Trek, where characters are ‘beamed’ off spacecraft to the surface of planets. What interested him at the time was the physical limits of such communication and the ways in which potential disruptions (such as noise and light) could be minimised. The quest drove his team to conduct feasibility tests to evaluate the circumstances in which photons would lose their entanglement, sparking a multiyear rivalry with Zeilinger’s team at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “They would compete fiercely to break records for transmitting entangled photon pairs across ever-wider gaps, and in ever-more extreme conditions, in ground-based experiments,” observed Scientific American, a magazine.
The turning point came in 2016 when Pan led the Chinese to launch the world’s first quantum-communication satellite, named after Micius, a Chinese scientist and philosopher (who is said to have conducted an experiment to prove that light travels in straight lines during the Warring States period 2,200 years ago).
Pan was convinced that satellites and space-based links could be an ideal carrier for quantum communications because signal decay is drastically lower in a vacuum.
Pan managed to race ahead of Zeilinger and tested this theory, helped by the fact his ideas were embraced by the China National Space Administration, reports Scientific American. By contrast Zeilinger’s proposals were mired in a bureaucratic swamp at the European Space Agency.
The following year saw an end to the competition between the duo as they joined hands again to conduct experiments using Micius, which orbits the Earth at an altitude of 300 miles. That included the unhackable video-conference call between Beijing and Vienna. The same day Pan also unveiled the 2,032-kilometre QKD network between Beijing and Shanghai, the world’s longest terrestrial QKD link. This ultra secure network was supported by 32 local quantum node stations, according to QuantumCTek, one of China’s main QKD device manufacturers, and in which USTC and Pan have an 18% and 11% stake respectively. The network has been used by IT firms, banks and government bodies.
The Washington Post reported last month that China filed nearly twice as many patents for quantum communications technology as the US (the next closest country) in 2018, according to Patinformatics, an Ohio-based research firm. Leading a team of over 130 researchers, Pan has authored more than 270 articles that have received more than 32,000 citations as of June, adds the American Physical Society. (In 2018 Pan was recognised by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the year.)
By 2022, China will launch more quantum communication satellites, including one at an altitude of 20,000 kilometres for covering a larger area of the earth’s surface. A Chinese manned space station is also scheduled to carry an experimental quantum-communications payload that will require human operators to maintain and upgrade, Pan told Science and Technology magazine.
The ultimate goal is a globe-spanning constellation of satellites for powering an ultra-secure quantum internet. Pan’s support base, not too surprisingly, includes the military industrial complex. State-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, which builds nuclear submarines, for instance, is working with Pan to develop quantum sensors capable of spotting stealth aircraft or warships.
Separately, the country is building a lab for quantum research in Hefei, costing Rmb7 billion ($980.19 million) in its first phase. The provincial government of Anhui will also contribute an additional Rmb10 billion to promote quantum science industrial development through a dedicated fund, China Daily reports.
No surprise, says the Washington Post, that Pan has publicly credited former NSA staffer Edward Snowden “for motivating China’s quantum research” and getting his work so much state backing.
Quantum technology is also one of the priorities listed in the “Made in China 2025” blueprint, a state-led industrial policy that aims to help China climb the technology ladder. Recruited through China’s “Thousand Talents Plan” (see WiC27) – a national strategy to lure Western-educated Chinese scientists home with personal perks, promises of research autonomy, as well as generous funding.
Pan was clearly in the right place at the right time. But his growing success has caught the attention of Washington’s hawks: not just because of his work, but also because of the state-sponsored ‘talent’ system that has fast-tracked his results and enabled him to recruit swathes of researchers educated overseas.
Indeed, there is an increasing view – especially as the Sino-US trade and tech war escalates – that Beijing’s scientific ‘talent’ policy is a state-backed means to raid America’s top seats of learning so as to instigate intellectual property theft and technology transfer.
This has led to a shake-up in US visa policy. For instance, in February Pan and his team were awarded the 2018 Newcomb Cleveland Prize – one of America’s oldest science awards – for their contributions in communication security technology (i.e. satellite-based quantum entanglement).
However, Pan’s application for a visa to visit the US was not processed, causing him to miss the awards ceremony in Washington.
“No one at the US embassy requested additional information from Pan to facilitate visa processing,” reported the South China Morning Post, adding that the quantum expert was the first mainland Chinese scientist to win the accolade in its 95-year history. n
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