China's quantum computing

China’s quantum computing efforts by physicists unveiled a quantum computer that surpasses Google’s in 2019.(IMG/ University of Science and Technology of China)

China’s quantum computing efforts surpasses the West’s – again

China’s quantum computing efforts are still going strong, and the country isn’t resting on its laurels since it launched the world’s fastest quantum computer last year, beating previous record-holder Google. 

The quantum computing race is one that’s being watched closely by the world as tech giants including Google find themselves locked in a seemingly neverending battle to further advance the field and develop the best in quantum computing.

What exactly is quantum computing?

Quantum computing is essentially computing on steroids. However, the field isn’t exactly a new one — scientists have been working on the technology from as far back as 35 years ago.

Current computers, including supercomputers, are limited in their computing power. Certain highly complex and resource-intensive computing processes are difficult to simulate in classical computers because it requires a huge amount of calculation based on complex algorithms. 

However,  quantum computers utilize principles of quantum physics that would be able to achieve infinitely more computations — in a mere fraction of the time conventional ones will take.

To put it into perspective, Google achieved “quantum supremacy” in 2019 when its machine proved to be capable of achieving its target computation in 200 seconds. Comparatively, the world’s fastest supercomputer would take 10,000 years to do the same thing.

The following year, a team from China’s University of Science and Technology (USTC) managed to build the “Zuchongzhi”, which is capable of surpassing Google’s efforts by a mind-boggling factor of 10 billion. 

China’s quantum computing goals

Since launching the world’s first quantum satellite in 2016 and the largest land-based quantum communications network in 2019, China has blazed trails in the field, despite once lagging behind the West. 

Recently, a peer-reviewed study published by Chinese physicists claimed that they’ve built two quantum computers that are capable of surpassing virtually any other quantum computer in the world

Published in the journal Physical Review Letters and Science Bulletin, physicists claimed construction of a superconducting machine called “Zuchongzhi 2”. The Zuchongzhi 2 is an upgrade from an earlier machine released in July 2021 that can run a calculation task one million times more complex than Google’s Sycamore, according to lead researcher Pan Jianwei.

They also constructed a speedier unit that uses light photons to obtain unprecedented results, as part of their Zuchongzhi project that took flight in 2020. 

Dubbed the “Jiuzhang 2”, the machine can calculate, in merely one millisecond, a task that would take the world’s fastest supercomputer a staggering 30 trillion years to compute.

While the Juizhang 2 has a narrower field of applications, it is capable of reaching speeds of 100 sextillions (one followed by 23 zeros) times faster than the largest conventional computers.

Jiuzhang 2 is an upgrade of a machine built by a team led by Chinese physicist Lu Chaoyang last year. That machine uses photons, with each one carrying a qubit – the basic unit of quantum information. 

Lu highlighted that they “have increased the number of photons from 76 to 113, with the new machine capable of being “billions of billions of times faster than supercomputers.”

As reported by the South China Morning Post, Pan noted that the circuits of the Zuchongzhi have to be cooled to very low temperatures to enable optimal performance for a complex task called a random walk.

A random walk is a model that corresponds to the tactical movements of pieces on a chessboard and works under the assumption that the movement of a chess piece can be completely random, without any association with previous moves. 

With that said, however, despite advancements to speed and efficiencies in China’s quantum computing field, these computer are unlikely to replace supercomputers, at least for now. Currently, these quantum computers by Lu and Pan’s teams are ironically prone to mistakes, and can only function in a restricted, protected environment for brief periods of time to work on highly specific tasks. 

“In the next step, we hope to achieve quantum error correction with four to five years of hard work,” Pan said during an interview with China’s state-owned CCTV

However, he claims that it is possible to “explore the use of some dedicated quantum computers or quantum simulators to solve some of the most important scientific questions with practical value, based on the technology of quantum error correction.”

Is the technology all that great, though?

Whilst the quantum computers breaking records are limited in scope viz practical application, there exist other less powerful quantum computers that have a wide range of applications in industries. 

They include predicting stock prices, calculating gene mutations, researching new materials, or improving air flows in hypersonic flight at Mach 5 or beyond, among others.

Most anticipatedly, quantum computing has the potential to be applied to and advance the field of artificial intelligence. This would have massive implications for solving real-world problems in a fraction of the time we currently take and drastically improve our collective quality of life as we know it.

With that said, critics are worried that quantum computers might not be a good thing in itself, citing concerns for misuse by threat actors, including hackers.

However, experts in the field argue that access to the advanced hardware as well as high costs to acquire such a technology would be out of reach of said entities.