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January 24, 2014

China Prepares for Quantum Age

Tiffany Trader
shadow of quantum cryptography

Exascale isn’t the only international computing race currently underway. Around the world national interests are also scrambling to build quantum computers capable of making and breaking amazingly-complex codes.

Take China for example. Already home to the most powerful supercomputer in the world, Tianhe-2, researchers in China have set their sites on the holy grail of technology – the world’s first code-breaking quantum supercomputer.

News of the activity appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) earlier this month.

The ability to break encryption schemes has long been a secret weapon of governments. It’s widely accepted that British interception of the Nazis’ “unbreakable” Enigma cipher codes advanced the end of World War II by two years. Code-breaking work arguably contributed more to the Allied war effort and eventual victory than the more prominent Manhattan Project.

Even the most secure encryption codes in existence today would be no match for the quantum computer. Banks, governments and militaries around the globe are keenly aware of this looming threat (or tool, depending on your perspective) and have made preparing for the quantum age a foremost priority.

Where traditional computing relies on a unit of information called a bit, quantum computing is based on quantum bits or qubits. Bits are expressed in binary form, ones and zeros, while a qubit can represent a zero, a one, or a combination of both states at the same time, a quantum property known as superposition. This endows these theoretical number crunchers with an inordinately high natural parallelism. Able to perform millions of calculations simultaneously, quantum computing machines would be orders of magnitude faster than classical computers for certain problem sets. The most famous of these killer apps is code-breaking.

Quantum computers have been predicted for some time, but they were not expected to be practical or productive for another two decades or more. It then came to light via documents leaked by Edward Snowden to The Washington Post that the US National Security Agency had been building “a cryptologically useful quantum computer [in] room-sized metal boxes,” but the technology was still some years away. The same documents revealed that while the NSA has many ways of accessing private communications via backdoors and other surreptitious means, for now, the strongest encryption algorithms are safe when deployed correctly.

On the Chinese front, the SCMP article states that “while there is no sign that China is close to developing a practical, working model, it has pulled out all the stops to build the ultimate code-breaker.” Leading universities, state research institutes and military labs are pursuing technologies that support the development of a practical quantum code-breaker with the most promising projects getting nearly unlimited funding dollars.

One such program has been tasked with generating the extreme environment needed to make quantum computing possible. The Steady High Magnetic Field Experimental Facility is housed in a three-story complex on the Hefei Science Island. Researchers at the facility are working to design and maintain a magnetic field at 45 Tesla or higher. So far, according to the Guinness World Records, the feat has only been achieved by the US-based National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Dr. Chen Hongwei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ High Magnetic Field Laboratory and leader of the quantum computer project at the magnetic facility, is confident that strong magnetic fields could address some of the main challenges in quantum computing.

According to Chen, qubits are fragile and tend to clump together in clusters, which compromises their use as computing operands.

“You can’t do anything with a qubit if you can’t even find one,” he said. “However, under super-strong magnetic fields, the distance between qubits can be increased, making our jobs easier.”

Smaller-scale experiments undertaken at the lab have shown promising results. “If qubits can be tamed this way, the first quantum computer may be born inside a magnet,” Chen said.

The importance of building a quantum computer is such that the Chinese government funded 90 quantum related projects last year through the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Despite or perhaps because of these high stakes involved, there is much debate about the likelihood of current efforts blossoming into something useful. Professor Zhao Hongwu, a researcher with the CAS Institute of Physics on qubit storage materials and technology, thinks the first quantum computer could still be decades, perhaps even centuries, away.

It’s his take that the government is investing in so many different projects because no single one has any guarantee of success. “It is very likely that more than 99 percent of research will end up in failure,” notes Zhao, “But the work must be done, or we will never know which method works.”

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