Internet & Tech

The next big thing

Party study session sparks quantum craze

Pan Jianwei-w

Pan Jianwei: quantum expert

“He who excels in study can follow a career as an official,” said the sage Confucius.

For thousands of years, government officials in the Middle Kingdom had to be avid learners. In our own times, the same spirit is embodied by the many ‘study sessions’ convened since 2002 at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound (see WiC241). With a view to educating the Communist Party’s senior members on the latest developments in a wide range of subjects, these lectures have also provided a glimpse into the leadership’s priorities and triggered investment trends.

Examples include lectures on Big Data, artificial intelligence and blockchain – topics that were featured at the Politburo’s collective study sessions between 2017 and 2019, and subsequently emerged as national policies that prompted rounds of big-ticket investment.

The next frontier looks to be quantum technology – which was the focus of the latest (and 24th) study session for Beijing leaders. For the likes of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the crash course in quantum theories (the study of particles smaller than atoms) included explanations of superposition (the phenomenon when a subatomic particle exist in two states at once) and entanglement (the ability of separated particles to share a condition regardless of how far apart they are).

According to Xue Qikun, the vice president of Tsinghua University who led the study session, quantum tech will usher in breakthroughs across a wide array of areas.

In computing, it could radically speed up the time for processing information or running algorithms. Quantum communications technology also enables secure encryption and hackproof transmission of data. In quantum sensing, scientists are also hoping that quantum-enhanced sensors could allow more accurate underseas navigation or support breakthroughs in areas like monitoring brain activity.

So, where does China stand in the development of quantum technology? Tencent News pointed out that the country is leading in quantum communications, as the world’s first quantum-encrypted intercontinental video link was built by Hefei-based physicist Pan Jianwei (see WiC465). The world’s longest terrestrial quantum key distribution network is also supporting online banking services in Beijing and Shanghai.

More significantly, an industry chain surrounding quantum communication has already been established. The market for quantum communications, however, remains relatively small at Rmb32.5 billion ($4.8 billion) last year, Qianzhan, a Shenzhen-based consultancy estimated, noting that only the government and military have strong demand for high-confidentiality applications so far.

In quantum computing, China is a little behind international rivals. In August, Professor Zhu Xiaobo, who is affiliated with the University of Science and Technology of China, said that a 60-qubit superconductivity quantum computing system with a 99.5% fidelity could be achieved this year. That is compared to the 53-qubit processing power that Google unveiled last October with its quantum computer. In a decade, the Chinese system could potentially evolve into a million-qubit level with a 99.8% fidelity, surpassing perhaps its Google counterpart, claimed Zhu.

At present there are two companies in China focusing on quantum computing. One is Origin Quantum based in Hefei, which has 77 patents in the field, ranking it in the world’s top 10. Another is Shenzhen-based SpinQ, which is developing desktop-size quantum computers. Tech behemoths such as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Huawei are all ploughing resources into the frontier technology too.

Where China really lags behind is quantum sensor technology. That has not stopped investors from betting on the likes of Guochuang Software, Bluedon Information Security Technology and Advanced Fiber Resources – driving their share prices up by the 20% daily ceiling on October 19 after news became public of the study session’s topic.

Yet Beijing looks determined not to be left behind. After the latest study session, Xinhua published a directive in which Xi called for a greater national effort to forge ahead in quantum science. Xue’s lecture clearly had an impact…

 

 

Keeping track, Nov 16, 2020: We reported in WiC516 that quantum technology is poised for policy support and big-ticket investment in China, following President Xi Jinping’s advocacy and the holding of a Politburo ‘Study Session’ on the topic in October. A major reason behind the drive was that China lagged behind in two of the three key areas in the revolutionary field, one of which is quantum computing. Apparently, that is not the case anymore. According to a paper published by Science, a journal, on December 4, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hebei province have created a computing system that demonstrates “quantum supremacy”, meaning it can tackle a problem that no classical supercomputer can solve within a practical timeframe. This is evidenced by the system’s ability to perform an esoteric calculation called “Gaussian boson sampling” in 200 seconds – a task that would take the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer around 2.5 billion years. More remarkably, the result was achieved by manipulating 76 photons (i.e. particles of light), as opposed to using a physical circuit made of cold, superconducting metal. That makes it the world’s first light-based quantum computer, and 10 billion times faster than Google’s 53-qubit quantum computer Sycamore, which was said to have achieved “quantum supremacy” last October. The groundbreaking computer, which comprises a complex array of optical devices including beam splitters and mirrors, is named Jiuzhang, after an ancient Chinese mathematical tome compiled from texts that go as far back as 10 BC in the Han Dynasty. Translated as “The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art”, the tome includes the Chinese version of the Pythagorean theorem and other rules. Think of it as China’s equivalent to Euclid’s Elements. Programmed only to do boson sampling, Jiuzhang has yet to become a general-purpose computer, said Pan Jianwei, the quantum scientist who led the research (see WiC465 for his profile). Nonetheless, it has generated much national pride, with four of the 24 researchers behind Jiuzhang born after 1990, with the youngest one aged 23.


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