Over a decade ago, Chinese physicist Pan Jian-Wei returned home from Europe to assist in overseeing research into some of the most important technologies of the 21st century. At a conference in Shanghai this summer, Pan and his team offered a rare peek at the work he defines as a “revolution.”
They talked about the hacking-resistant communications networks they are building across China, the sensors they are designed to see through smog and around corners, and the prototype computers that may in the future smash the computational power of any existing machine. All this gear is founded on quantum technology, an emerging arena that could transform information processing and confer huge economic and national-security advantages to countries that lead it. Much to the dismay of some scientists and officials in the United States, China’s formidable investment is letting it catch up with Western research in the field and, in a few areas, even pull ahead.
Beijing is investing billions into research and development and even offering big perks to Chinese scientists to return home from Western labs. China’s ambitious drive has instigated calls for more R&D funding in the United States and facilitated in triggering concerns in the Trump administration that certain scientific collaborations with China may be aiding the People’s Liberation Army and harming U.S. interests.
The Center for a New American Security wrote in a recent report about China’s quantum ambitions. “The United States must be prepared for a future in which its traditional technological predominance faces new, perhaps unprecedented challenges”.
Quantum technology aims to harness the distinct properties of atoms, protons, and electrons to build more powerful tools for processing information.
Last year, China had closely twice as many patent filings as the United States for quantum technology overall, a category that consists of communications and cryptology devices, according to market research firm Patinformatics. The United States still leads the world in patents relating to quantum computers considered the most prized segment of the field owing to heavy investment by IBM, Google, Microsoft, and others.
Pan is helping manage China’s program and Chinese media calls him the “father of quantum.” The 49-year-old leads a team of 130 researchers from his labs at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), in Shanghai and Hefei. In 2017, the Nature journal named him one of “ten people who mattered this year,” saying he had “lit a fire under the country’s efforts in quantum technology.”
According to the Chinese media, Pan occasionally gives lab tours to President Xi Jinping, who takes a keen interest in his work. Pan is also supervising plans for a new national lab for quantum research in Anhui province, which he said had drawn around $400 million in government funding.
At the Shanghai event, Pan demonstrated his slide presentation with science-nerd jokes about Einstein and “Star Trek.” In an acknowledgment to Schrödinger’s cat, a 1930s experiment that aided in defining a quantum concept called a superposition, Pan illustrated images of a cartoon feline standing upright and lying flat on its back.
Pan said, “As we all know, in our everyday life, a cat can only either be in an alive or dead state but a cat in the quantum world can be in a coherent superposition of alive and dead states.”
He was highlighting that quantum particles, also called quantum bits, differ fundamentally from the bits in today’s technology. Prevailing computers and communications networks store, process and transmit information by breaking it down into long streams of bits, which are characteristically electrical or optical pulses representing a zero or one.
Quantum bits, or qubits, which are frequently atoms, electrons or photons, can exist as zeros and ones at the same time, or in any position between, flexibility that permits them to process information in new ways. Some physicists even compare them to a spinning coin that is in a heads and tails state simultaneously.
In his talk, Pan described how China is harnessing qubits to safeguard its communications from hacking making this one of the fields in which China seems to have a lead over the West.
Pan and his team are targeting to launch a constellation of satellites and a nationwide fiber-optic network that use qubits for the secure transmission of information. A nearly 1,300-mile fiber link connecting Beijing, Shanghai and other cities are already up and running. Even a satellite launched by China in 2016 has conducted several prominent experiments such as facilitating a hacking-resistant video conference between Beijing and Vienna.
When this network is complete, it could potentially complicate U.S. efforts to eavesdrop on China’s government or military communications, as per some Western scientists
“I predict China will go black in two to three years — we won’t be able to read anything,” claimed Jonathan Dowling, a physics professor at Louisiana State University serves as a visiting faculty member at USTC in Shanghai for a part of the year.
Others contend that even if China’s network equipment is more secure, it could still be hacked by manipulating the humans working on the system. If the technology gains traction globally, according to Patinformatics, China could be in a strong position to sell it, given the large number of patents its universities and companies have registered for devices and technology relating to quantum communication and encryption.
Pan credits Edward Snowden for motivating China’s quantum research. The former National Security Agency contractor’s exposés about NSA eavesdropping led China to invest money into developing more secure communications, Pan said in published interviews.
Barry Sanders, a Canadian physicist from the University of Calgary, spends two to three months a year as a visiting professor at the USTC labs in Shanghai. He got hired through China’s “Thousand Talents” program, which recruits Western scientists for teaching and research stints, and offers incentives to persuade Chinese researchers to return home from overseas.
Sanders believes China’s cultural differences can provide advantages in the lab.
He said, “I have my Western way of doing things — freedom of thought, take risks. In China, there is more emphasis on the common good. One guy spent two years really focused on how to prepare the lab room. You can assign people these tasks — they will do something that in our world would be seen as beneath us. But here they are supported and held in high esteem.”
Pan received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1999 and along with several Chinese colleagues conducted further research at the University of Heidelberg before moving home.
At the time China’s work on quantum technologies was “relatively backward” and needed outside help, Pan admitted in an email, “Therefore, our team took the initiative to send students to top research groups abroad to learn related technologies. Fortunately, they later returned back to work in China.”
Majority of the Chinese researchers speaking at the Shanghai conference spent years studying overseas. Their presentation slides were peppered with humorous references to Western events and pop culture including Trump-like slogans. Their postdoctoral credentials came from universities like Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge and the University of Toronto, as listed in their biographies printed in the program.
Scientists claim that while their talks didn’t focus on military applications, most of the technology they’re pursuing would have clear application in both the commercial and defense realms.
Quantum computers might soon be able to crack all existing forms of encryption. Quantum sensors could enable the Chinese military to track and target enemy troops with greater precision. According to Chinese media reports cited in the Center for a New American Security paper, the university where Pan works, USTC, has established several quantum-research partnerships with state-owned defense companies in recent years, with aims that include enhancing the combat capability of naval vessels.
The paper’s authors, Elsa Kania, and John Costello, who reviewed hundreds of Chinese-language media, government and technical reports, said, “China’s national advances in quantum communications and computing … will be leveraged to support military purposes”.
Scientists who have discussed this field with U.S. government officials share that the Trump administration has recently expressed concern about the number of Chinese students pursuing studies in the United States in sensitive fields like quantum science.
John Preskill, the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, who has advised the government on quantum-tech issues said, “We’ve always encouraged the best and brightest to come from overseas, and it’s always served our nation well. But there is a concern in government about how we are training all these people, and a lot of them are going back to China and competing in technologies that have implications for national security. And we’re talking about what to do about it. Many of us in academia, although we know there are complicated issues, are inclined to continue encouraging Chinese students to come, but there is a continuing discussion in the government about what’s the best policy for doing that.”
In an opinion article this month, two U.S. university associations state that their members were strengthening security protocols and building closer relationships with the FBI and intelligence agencies, after becoming aware of “increasing concern” from the federal government about “foreign interference” in university research. They also commended the contributions of Chinese students and faculty and recommended that the United States must continue to welcome them.
Pan said he believed collaboration would bring only rewards in quantum science.
He said in his email, “The academic exchange benefits both countries. I see no reason whatsoever that the United States government should be concerned and discourage normal academic activities. Recall that quantum mechanics was first developed in Europe, and then moved to the United States.”
When asked about his group’s contributions to research for the Chinese military, Pan said his university and team are “by nature, for fundamental scientific research and education.”
“We publish our fundamental research results in international journals which are available to read from all around the world. From reading our papers, other people, who can be from the United States, Europe, Japan, or China, might be inspired and further develop ‘immediately useful’ technology or products for industry or commercial or military use,” he explained, adding that this was “out of our control.”
Some sections of the U.S. government are restricting collaboration with China. In June, the Energy Department, one of the primary agencies funding physics and quantum-science research, forbid its employees and contractors from responding to certain foreign countries’ talent-recruitment programs, counting in China’s Thousand Talents. The agency claimed it wanted to limit “unauthorized transfers of scientific and technical information.”
Chris Fall, director of the agency’s Office of Science, said in an interview, “What we have said in shorthand is, you cannot work for the Department of Energy and for one of these foreign talent recruitment programs. You cannot work for a foreign country and the Department of Energy at the same time”.
Partially motivated by China’s progress, Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act late last year, which authorized extra funding of $1.2 billion to research over five years. The Energy Department is set to receive a big portion of that money, which it intends to use to set up several quantum-focused research centers. Fall said, the agency is soliciting ideas from its own national laboratories and from universities and the private sector as it decides how to establish those centers.
“The beauty of how we do science in this country is that it isn’t top-down,” he remarked.
As of now, China is lagging behind the U.S. tech industry in maybe the most important race in this field: building a quantum computer.
A fully functional quantum computer has the potential to be transformative. The exponentially greater calculation power could facilitate the identification of new chemical compounds to treat intractable diseases and eliminate traffic snarls by predicting and managing the flow of vehicles. Nevertheless, the possibility that the machines could eventually crack all existing forms of encryption is a major concern for militaries, governments, and businesses that handle sensitive data.
Most scientists agree that to get a fully functioning computer, a goal that is still a decade or more away, researchers must coax a large number of qubits into working together efficiently. This might prove difficult because qubits are finicky and have the propensity to stop functioning at the slightest disturbance like a minor change in temperature.
Google and IBM are at the forefront, using superconducting circuits to manipulate qubits. Google last year unveiled a quantum processor with 72 qubits, surpassing IBM’s previously announced 50-qubit computer.
Chris Monroe, a University of Maryland physicist and co-founder of the start-up IonQ said that more important than the number of qubits is how effectively they work together. His company recently reported that its prototype computer that uses 11 qubits made of ionized atoms, performed more complex calculations with greater accuracy than any rival machine. IonQ’s investors include AWS, a subsidiary of Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.
Chinese researchers have so far reported a 12-qubit processor, using superconducting technology comparable to Google’s and IBM’s. The front-runner of that work, USTC professor Zhu Xiaobo, presented his team’s results at the Shanghai conference, flashing an image of their prototype on the screen — a shiny tangle of coaxial cables resembling an intricate golden chandelier. Amazingly, IBM’s and Google’s machines have a similar look.
Zhu said, “We are now working on 24 qubits. We hope next year we will go to 50, and maybe sometime we will go to quantum supremacy,” referring to the point at which a quantum computer is able to perform a calculation that existing computers can’t. The benchmark, though widely anticipated, will mark only the beginning of progress in the field, scientists say.
Lu Chaoyang, a young physicist who earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, also presented an update on his team’s approach to quantum computing. It relies on photons, which he dubbed “fast-flying qubits.” Lu, whom Sanders calls a “rising superstar” in China, punctuated his talk with funny cat GIFs and Western cultural references.
Lu said that although the idea for a quantum computer first surfaced 40 years ago, there is still a long way to go. He then played a brief video snippet of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling talking about the importance of setting “achievable goals.”
Lu concluded, “It’s important we set achievable goals for experiments so we can continuously progress”.