Chinese Researchers Are Leading the Upcoming Quantum Revolution
While President Trump focuses on his poll numbers, how to avoid a recession, keeping immigrants out of the country and taking your rights away, China is focused on accelerating technologies in medicine, computers and artificial intelligence II.
By James DiGeorgia
Over ten years ago, Pan Jian-Wei, a Chinese physicist working in Europe, headed home to supervise a research project involving a groundbreaking piece of technology.
Pan, along with his team, have offered fellow-scientists a glimpse into his work during his Shanghai conference, held during this summer, which has been termed a ‘revolution.’
They described details about hacking-resistant comms networks which they were building all over China, sensors that could view around corners and through smog & prototype computers, which could, one day, surpass the computing abilities of the most powerful machine currently in existence.
All these advancements are being designed based on quantum technology. This is a new field, which can overhaul current information processing technologies and bestow huge national security and economic benefits to nations that dominate this field. U.S. officials and scientists have been dismayed about huge Chinese investments being poured into research, which is now mostly at par with Western tech, and ahead of them in some areas.
Pan Jian-Wei, also know as the ‘Father of Quantum’ in China is a genius physics professor, currently leading the nation’s quantum science movement from his office at USTC.
China is now pouring billions of dollars into R&D, offering Chinese researchers with huge perks to head home from labs in the West. This move has led to increased calls from researchers in the U.S. for enhanced R&D spending. Trump’s administration is also worried that scientific collaborations with China are hurting U.S. interests and aiding the PLA.
Quantum tech harnesses the inherent properties of electrons, photons, and atoms to develop powerful tools that can process information.
2018 saw China come up with 2x the number of quantum tech-related patent filings compared to the United States. As per Patinformatics, a market research company, this category also includes cryptology devices and communications. The United States, however, is the world leader when it comes to quantum computers, the field’s most prized sub-field, thanks to huge investments made by Microsoft, Google, IBM, and others.
Overseeing China’s quantum tech mission is Pan, who has been named ‘Father of Quantum’ by Chinese media outlets. Based out of USTC labs in Hefei and Shanghai, Pan head a group of over 130 researchers. The Nature journal had named him on the ‘Ten People Who Mattered This Year’ list in 2017, stating that he sparked a revolution in China, helping it advance significantly in quantum tech.
Pan gives occasional laboratory tours to Pres. Xi Jinping, who’s an avid follower of his work, as per reports from Chinese media. He is overseeing plans to build a new lab for innovative quantum research as well, which will be located in Anhui. This lab will cost over $400M, all paid for by government funding.
Pan kicked off his Shanghai event with science jokes about Star Trek and Einstein. He also referenced Schrodinger’s cat, which is a famous thought experiment from the 1930s, which helped define superposition, an important quantum concept. He did this by using images of cartoon cats lying flat and standing upright.
Pan stated that in our daily life, we know that cats can exist either in dead or alive states. However, quantum physics states that cats may also exist incoherent superposition of dead and alive states.
Pan explained a theory about how quantum particles or quantum bits, are fundamentally different from computer bits used in today’s tech. Existing comms networks and computers transmit and process data by distilling it down to long bitstreams that are usually optical or electrical pulses, each representing a one or a zero.
Qubits or quantum bits are photons, electrons or atoms, which may exist as ones or zeros or a position between them, simultaneously, with flexibility which enables information processing in innovative ways. A few physicists state that this condition is similar to spinning coins, which are simultaneously in tails or heads states.
During his talk, he detailed about China’s progress in harnessing qubits, which would safeguard its comms networks against hacking – a field where China is currently ahead of Western countries.
Pan, along with his team, now intends to launch satellite constellations and a fiber-optic network, which will operate nationwide, utilizing qubits for securely transmitting data. A fiber link that measures almost 1300 miles, connecting Shanghai, Beijing, and several other cities already happens to be functioning well. A Chinese satellite that was launched back in 2016 is active as well, having performed many prominent experiments, which included the facilitation of hacking resistant conferences between Vienna and Beijing.
Xinglong in China houses a ground-based station, which transmits hacking-resistant data to China’s quantum-enabled satellite, launched back in 2016.
If this network is completed, U.S. efforts to hack into Chinese military or government communications could be thwarted successfully, state several Western scientists.
Jonathan Dowling of LSU, who teaches physics, stated that these operations would be fully effective in 2-3 years, after which the U.S. would not have the resources to read or hack anything. Dowling also is a faculty member (visiting) at USTC, located in Shanghai.
Several others also hold that manipulation of humans behind the system could still enable hacking, even if Chinese network facilities get more security upgrades.
If tech gains traction on a global basis, China would soon be able to start selling its technology, thanks to an army of patents that its companies and universities have obtained for technology and devices related to quantum encryption and communication, as per Patinformatics.
Pan holds Edward Snowden’s work to have motivated Chinese efforts in quantum research advancements. The ex-NSA contractor’s leaks about the NSA eavesdropping on Chinese comms caused China to start funding the development of secure comms networks, stated Pan in several published interviews.
Calgary University physicist Barry Sanders spends 2-3 months every year, teaching at Shanghai’s USTC labs. He obtained this job via a Chinese program named ‘Thousand Talents,’ which recruits scientists based in the West for research and teaching stints. It offers several incentives for persuading Chinese scientists to come home from their overseas jobs.
Sanders holds that Chinese cultural differences provide several advantages in labs.
He stated that his Western attitude of carrying out his tasks, including taking risks and free, open thinking. However, the Chinese emphasize doing things for society’s good. A person he knew spent two years focused on optimizing lab room plans. People are assigned tasks, which would normally be looked down upon in the West. However, here they receive support and are treated with respect.
Pan obtained his doctorate from Vienna University back in 1999. He underwent a research program at Heidelberg University, before moving home, with several of his Chinese colleagues.
Back then, Chinese expertise in quantum tech was quite backward, needing outside help, stated Pan via email. Therefore, their team decided to send their students to several top-rated research programs abroad for learning-related tech. Fortunately, they returned to resume working in China once their program was complete.
Many Chinese researchers who spoke at this Shanghai conference had spent years in overseas learning programs. Amusing references to several Western events and pop culture were scattered throughout their slides. One involved an image of Donald Trump, captioned ‘Make SPDC Great Again,’ which was a reference to optical processes where photons are split into two portions. During a break, a Chinese scientist’s phone rang clear and loud, with its ringtone from ‘Friends,’ a popular TV show.
Their postdoctoral or Ph.D. credentials were obtained from elite universities like Cambridge, Toronto University, MIT and Stanford, as per their biographies.
While no military applications were discussed during the conference, most tech innovations they are currently pursuing are bound to have applications in defense and commercial realms, scientists have said.
Golden colored cables, which resemble chandeliers, are common features in quantum computers that utilize superconducting circuits.
It is theorized that quantum computers may one day become capable of cracking every form of encryption there is. Quantum sensors may aid Chinese military efforts to target and track enemy military troops with advanced precision. USTC, where Pan is currently working, has established many quantum-research partnership programs with state defense firms in the last few years. Their aims include the enhancement of naval vessels’ combat capabilities, as per Chinese media statements cited in a CNAS paper.
This paper’s authors John Costello and Elsa Kania have stated that Chinese advancements in quantum computing and communication may be leveraged for supporting military programs. The authors had reviewed several Chinese-language technical, government, and media reports before coming to this conclusion.
Researchers who’ve discussed this field with US government officials state that the U.S. administration had expressed concerns over the increasing number of students from China pursuing their education in the USA in several sensitive fields like quantum science.
John Preskill of Caltech, who works as a theoretical physicist, stated that the U.S. administration had always encouraged brilliant students from overseas to study in their colleges, which had led to huge benefits for the U.S. economy. Preskill is a government adviser on matters related to quantum tech. However, there is a serious concern among government officials about how these people are being trained as many of them wind up heading back home to China and building competitive technologies, which have national security implications. The administration is currently considering its options regarding this issue.
Two U.S. university associations published an opinion article during this month, which stated that several of their members had built better relationships with intelligence agencies and the FBI & strengthened security protocols after they heard of the government’s increasing concern regarding foreign interference issues in their university research. The associations lauded the contributions made by Chinese faculty and students, stating that the U.S. has to continue welcoming them.
Pan believes that collaboration will only bring in benefits in quantum research and science.
He stated that this academic exchange was beneficial for both nations. He saw no reason why the U.S. government had to be worried about it, which would lead to the disruption of academic activities. He mentioned that quantum physics was theorized and developed first in Europe, after which it shifted to the Unioted States.
When questioned whether his team contributed to research programs backed by China’s military, he stated that his team and university focus on enhancing fundamental scientific education and research.
He added that their fundamental research outcomes were published in several international journals that were available all over the world. He mentioned that it is quite possible that by reading these papers, people from China, Japan, Europe or the US could get inspired and start developing useful products or pieces of tech that have military/industry/commercial applications, something that his team had no control over.
Many US government departments have begun restricting their collaborations with China. Back in June, the U.S. energy department, which is among the primary agencies funding quantum science and physics research, banned its contractors and employees from sending any response to talent-recruitment agencies of certain countries, which includes the Thousand Talents program from China as well. The agency defended this move, stating that it wished to limit any unauthorized technical or scientific information transfers.
This ban was placed after an ex-scientist at Energy Department’s LANL was indicted as a result of him issuing false statements regarding his involvement in the Thousand Talents program.
Chris Fall, who directs the Energy Department’s Office of Science, explained that their rules were clear – You can’t work under the U.S. Energy Department & a foreign recruitment program simultaneously. You can’t work under the U.S. Energy Department and a foreign nation simultaneously.
Motivated by Chinese progress in the field, Congress passed the NQI Act last year, which allocates another $1.2B in research spending over five years. The US Energy Department is likely to receive most of this money, which will be utilized for setting up quantum science research centers. It is currently requesting ideas from private firms, universities and national laboratories for deciding how it should establish these centers, stated Fall.
He said that the best thing about research in America was that it involved everyone in decision-making processes.
However, China still lags behind the USA’s tech sector in an extremely crucial field: Development of a fully-capable quantum computer.
Developing fully capable quantum computers could have transformative effects. This would provide exponentially bigger calculation powers, that could be utilized in identifying chemical compounds, treating intractable diseases and health problems, and the eradication of traffic issues by managing and predicting traffic flow.
However, such a machine would also be able to eventually crack every form of encryption currently available in the world, which is a huge problem for businesses, militaries, and governments, institutions that handle highly sensitive information.
In order to build a fully capable computer – which is still another decade or so away, as per most researchers – scientists have to coax many qubits into functioning together efficiently. That is difficult since qubits exhibit finicky behavior and tend to quit functioning even with the slightest disturbances like minor temperature changes.
IBM and Google are leading this sub-field, utilizing superconducting circuits for manipulating qubits. The latter had unveiled a powerful quantum processor that had 72 qubits, which surpassed IBM’s 50 qubit quantum computer.
However, what’s even more vital than the qubit figures are their efficiency rates when they work in unison, stated Chris Monroe of Maryland University, who is a physicist & co-founder at IonQ, a startup. The firm that earlier reported its prototype quantum computers, which possesses 11 qubits, to have performed calculations far more complex and with higher accuracy rates compared to rival machines. IonQ’s backers include Amazon subsidiary AWS, whose founder Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post.
Researchers from China have so far reported a processor with only 12 qubits, which utilizes superconductor tech similar to the ones at IBM and Google.
Zhu Xiaobo, a USTC professor and leader of this research team presented the team’s results here at this Shanghai conference, with an image of the prototype flashing on the display screen. It had a coaxial cable tangle, which resembled intricate golden chandeliers. Google’s and IBM’s machines have similar looks as well.
Zhu stated that they were currently working on enhancing this capacity to 24 qubits. He hoped that in another year, this would be upped to 50, after which they would target quantum supremacy. Once quantum computers breach this point, they’ll be capable of performing calculations which can’t be done by existing computers. While this benchmark is being widely anticipated, it would only mark the first step in this field, researchers state.
Lu Chaoyang is a physicist who did his doctorate studies at Cambridge. He delivered an update regarding his team’s quantum computing approach as well. It is based on photons that he also dubs as ‘fast-flying qubits’
Sanders acknowledges that Lu is a superstar in scientific circles in China. He peppered his speech with several cultural references from the West and humorous cat GIFs.
While the concept of a quantum computing machine was first proposed over forty years ago, much work is yet to be done, stated Lu.
He played a video clip of JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, who spoke regarding the necessity to maintain achievable goals.