Chinese researchers revealed this month that they have built a
quantum computer capable of performing in minutes calculations that
would theoretically take today's most powerful supercomputers millions
The machine, which relies on manipulating particles of light, has
enabled the scientists to claim they have achieved so-called quantum
supremacy, a year after Google said it had achieved "quantum advantage"
with a supercomputer that uses ultra-cooled superconducting chips.
Both projects are part of international efforts to push computing to
the next and previously unattainable level that, until now, had been
Lu Chaoyang, a professor in charge of the experiment at the
University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, the capital of
Anhui province, was quoted as saying, "Building a quantum computer is a
race between humans and nature, not between countries."
As the biggest brains in computing and quantum physics assess the
significance of the breakthrough, it would seem almost churlish for us
ordinary mortals, who struggle to keep our laptop software updated, to
ask what the machine actually does. Is the breakthrough beneficial? Does
it offer any practical advantages for improving our lives?
Hefei's Jiuzhang experiment focused on performing one specific,
complex mathematical task beyond the range of conventional computers.
Traditional computing relies on binary bits whose value is expressed
as either zero or one. In quantum computing, bits can be both one and
zero at the same time, exponentially increasing their processing power
and making them trillions of times faster.
The machine used beams of laser light to perform a computation that would be practically impossible on a conventional computer.
Although, for now, the Chinese computer can only perform one task,
the next stage is to create a quantum machine that would be fully
programmable and capable of addressing a range of calculations.
The Hefei team believes the supercomputing capacity has potential in
areas such as machine learning and quantum chemistry. It could also
hasten medical advances, a potential that takes on particular
significance in a pandemic year.
Some skeptics believe that may be a long haul and that the next
steps, beyond the so-called boson sampling that the latest experiment
achieves, may be very difficult to achieve.
That is unlikely to deter the international researchers, or indeed
the private companies and governments that fund them. Venture
capitalists have poured billions of investor dollars into what has been
described as a quantum gold rush, hoping to cash in on the as yet
unproven practical applications of the technology.
The science magazine Nature estimated that, by the start of 2019,
private investors had funded more than 50 quantum technology companies
globally since 2012.
Some are betting that it might be possible to market an early
task-specific quantum computer that could, for example, simulate a
chemical reaction or optimize a financial model.
The field has also attracted large-scale government funding.
All new technology has its potential downsides, and advances in
quantum computing have inevitably given rise to concerns, particularly
in the field of internet security.
Today's data is protected by encryption technology that would take a
conventional computer hundreds of years to pick apart. Theoretically, a
quantum computer could crack the codes in minutes, a threat that has
given rise to the related field of quantum cryptography.
It is in its early days, but quantum computing has the potential to
revolutionize a range of disciplines. Science invariably advances from
the theoretical to the practical, defying the skeptics who challenge
whether it is worthwhile pouring money into unproven and seemingly
Polling in the 1960s found that more than half of the people in the
United States thought their government's investment in space technology
was a waste of money, an opinion that changed once astronauts finally
made it to the moon.
Since then, the so-called space race has transformed the world in a
variety of ways, from a revolution in satellite-based communications
technology to advances in scientific and medical research and robotics.
With the Chinese breakthrough and other global advances, quantum
computers are now on their own launchpad, ready to take off, even if we
are not quite sure yet what unforeseen and incalculable practical
benefits might one day emerge.
The author is a senior media consultant for China Daily UK.