A quantum wake-up call for US and Europe

In a report in March 2017, John Costello (Chinese Expert and Senior Analyst for Flashpoint) provided testimony for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission at the US congress.

What follows is a summary of some of the key takeaways from “Chinese efforts in quantum information science: drivers, milestones and strategic implications”.

Costello maintains that the US remains at the forefront of quantum information science; but admits that the gap between the US and other countries has narrowed significantly. In particular, he cites the huge investment programs underway in China in both basic and applied research.

The drive for quantum dominance in China took on new momentum following the Snowden leaks and revelations about US surveillance capabilities. At the very highest level, China has prioritised what it refers to as “quantum control” in the research and commercialisation of technologies most directly linked to “national strategic requirements.”

Costello recognises that there is the potential for China to surpass US efforts and how, once operationalised, quantum technologies will have transformative implications for China’s national security and economy.

Whilst the US has traditionally enjoyed a dominant position in the world of IT and communications technology, this is not an indication that the status quo will be maintained in a post-quantum world. China’s accelerated investment plans, coupled with its manufacturing capacity and huge workforce, could give it a competitive advantage over the US, Europe and the rest of the world.

The advantages of being first to market with quantum technologies are significant. Once leadership has been attained, the incremental “quantum advantage” would make it difficult for competitors to catch up. Nowhere is this advantage likely to be more obvious than in the world of quantum communications for military and defence applications.

The nature of quantum is such that any attempts to intercept or eavesdrop on those communications would be instantly detected, rendering covert surveillance impossible. The current advantages in electronic surveillance enjoyed by the US, UK and their NATO allies would be nullified.

The new “made in China” plan prioritises advances in quantum computing as a part of the strategic development of next generation IT. In the past couple of years, Chinese scientist have made great strides in the development and commercialisation of “un-hackable” quantum communications, quantum computing and quantum sensing.

One of the highest profile projects in recent years was the launch of the Micius satellite, which established a quantum key distribution network for the transmission of keys between space and a series of ground stations.

At the same time, ground-based quantum communications have reached a more advanced stage than their free-space cousins. As a part of the drive to secure its private network infrastructure, the Chinese government announced what it called the world’s first “quantum government network” as far back as 2009. Since then it has implemented a series of quantum LANs and WANs and is planning a metro-area network to enhance city-wide cyber security.

On a larger scale, China will soon complete the world’s largest quantum optical fiber communications system; stretching 1,240 miles between Shanghai and Beijing. China intends to create a quantum communications network between Asia and Europe by 2020 and ultimately a global network in 2030. Future quantum communications networks will probably involve both terrestrial wide area networks and quantum satellites linked with ground stations.

Costello points to a lack of coherent funding initiatives across Europe and the US; which may encourage leading quantum scientists to collaborate with China on larger projects. Micius is a prime example. Pan Jianwei (known as the father of Chinese quantum information science) partnered with his mentor, Austrian Scientist Anton Zeilinger, on the development of the satellite.

Whilst Zeilinger had technical know-how and expertise, he had been unable to secure funding in Europe to launch and operate a quantum satellite. Pan’s connections with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) proved beneficial; and the satellite only became a reality through Chinese state funding.

In conclusion, Costello calls for the US to reinvigorate investment in quantum; to leverage the advantages it currently enjoys and restore its position as an innovator. He recognises that the advances from China are not the result of IP theft, but a program of sustained, strategic support from the government. Something that is lacking in the US and Western Europe.

If the US or Europe are to maintain their global position in a post quantum age, they will need to find ways to integrate quantum technologies and adapt to the disruptive changes they will bring. This will require more than simply monitoring what the rest of the world is up to, it will involve a paradigm shift in priorities and a recognition that quantum will change the way the world works.

A copy of the full submission can be found here

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