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Is China winning ‘quantum race’ against the US?

Adil Rasheed

Published: Updated:

Although science often appears hostile to the irrational and the fantastic, it paradoxically manifests the stuff of fairy tales into reality. In fact, when it comes to quantum mechanics (the physics of subatomic particles), the scientific gobbledegook often appears more bizarre than the sophistry of the magic arts.

The space within

Thus quantum physicists posit that we live in an 11-dimensional reality (c.f. the superstring theory) but are consciously aware of only three dimensions – length, breadth and height; that our universe is part of a multi-verse and we may have many more of our own selves living out separate lives in different universes simultaneously (Michio Kaku); that the future has the ability to change the past (John Wheeler’s ‘Double-Slit Experiment’ in 1978); that space-time could be folded and warped into tiny tunnels or wormholes (Einstein-Rosen bridge); that atoms know when they are being watched and can alter behaviour (The Observer Effect and the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle); that two subatomic particles may be so connected (Quantum Entanglement) to each other that change in one particle might affect corresponding change in the other at a speed faster than that of light even across vast distances between them.

The US-China ‘quantum race’ might lead to the creation of artificial intelligence, which physicist Stephen Hawking fears could be the ‘worst event’ in civilization

Dr. Adil Rasheed

China takes lead

Interestingly, this last claim of quantum entanglement, which Einstein detested as “spooky behaviour at a distance” (for it defied his theory that nothing travels faster than light), was successfully experimented by China in June last year, when it declared that its satellite ‘Micius’ communicated with its ground station through the aforementioned “entangled quantum particles”.

The news of this Chinese advancement sent shockwaves across the Western world, with Pentagon acknowledging it as a “notable” advance. “I read that on a Sunday and went, ‘oh sh-t,’” said Gregory S. Clark, a mathematician and chief executive of Symantec Corp., a global cybersecurity company with headquarters in Mountain View, California. If China is able to refine this ‘hackproof’ technology, Clark said “the whole world changes”. This development alone is said to give China a lead in cryptography as well as cybersecurity, surveillance and communications.

Then in early September last year, China set up its first commercial quantum network providing telephone and data communication services in its province of Shandong, which is expected to be soon connected to a non-commercial Beijing-Shanghai quantum network. Later that month, Chinese Academy of Sciences held a video conference (“an intercontinental quantum call”) with Austrian scientists using quantum communication over a distance of 7,600kms.

It also announced it would build the world’s biggest quantum research facility, (a $10 billion center in Hefei city) to produce a working quantum computer that could break through any computer security codes within seconds.

On the heels of this news, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba announced it would invest $15 billion in R&D projects associated with quantum computing, to develop the futuristic ‘Internet of Things’, artificial intelligence, etc. It must be noted here that China has already built the world’s fastest supercomputer, the SunwayTaihu Light, and is said to be ahead of Western giants - Google, IBM and Microsoft - in quantum computing.

Quantum computing

The edge quantum computing (which is still in its very nascent form) has over classical computing comes in terms of both the speed and processing of information. Whereas classical computers use a ‘bit’ or a single piece of information that exists only in two states ‘1’ or ‘0’, the unpredictability of subatomic particles allows a quantum computer to store information in more than just ‘1’ or ‘0’ (called a quantum bit or qubit), as information can exist in any superposition of these values, in being both ‘1’ and ‘0’ at the same time. This makes quantum computing thousand times faster and more capable of processing zillion probabilities simultaneously.

Thus, the principles of quantum computing may be likened to the ambivalent solution Ibn Arabi found as a precocious mystic in the famous ‘yes-no’ answer he gave to the great philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) on their first meeting. “Yes-No! Between the yes and the no, spirits take wing from their matter and necks are separated from their bodies”.

Although commercial possibilities of quantum computing extend from the mapping of the genome, oil exploration, cancer detection and handling of air traffic, its military applications promise to be much more significant and enormous.

The quantum race

Any country which makes the first significant breakthrough in quantum computing could break any enemy encryption including all its classified information, activate its computer operated weaponry, build navigation systems that cannot be jammed and develop artificial intelligence in war fighting — making the fiction of Hollywood flicks like ‘Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’ a distinct possibility.

In the 1960s, Soviet Union inaugurated the ‘space race’ against its superpower rival the United States when it sent the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to space. The 21st century might similarly witness the rise of a quantum race between China and the West, which could advance the creation of artificial intelligence that physicist Stephen Hawking fears could be the “worst event” in civilization.

Arthur Herman, who heads the technology and defense program at the Hudson Institute, is already urging the US government to increase funding into quantum research. “We need a Manhattan Project-style funding focus in order for a national quantum initiative to succeed,” Herman says in reference to America’s World War II program that produced the first nuclear weapon.
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Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.