Quantum computing has the potential to transform the defense and cybersecurity industries. Quantum sensors and internet-cracking algorithms are in development, and both the US and China view quantum computing as an important element of national security. Undoubtedly, the country or company that develops the first quantum computer with real-world use cases will have a fantastic quantum advantage.
Money has been poured into the technology since the launch of China’s Micius satellite in 2016. It was the world’s first quantum communications satellite and, following this, China and the US, Google and IBM, Rigetti Computing, and IonQ are all vying for ‘quantum supremacy’—namely, having a device that can solve a problem that no classical computer can.
Advancements came thick and fast in 2021. In July, a Harvard-led team developed the largest ever quantum simulator. In October, China became the first country to achieve quantum supremacy on more than one platform—using both photonic and superconducting qubits. IBM unveiled its 127-qubit processor in November, the first device to overcome the 100-qubit milestone.
According to GlobalData’s Patent Analytics Database, China has more total publications across quantum computing technologies, largely as a result of its $10 billion National Quantum Lab at USTC Hefei. US efforts are spread among various companies, with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and IBM spearheading efforts. This creates competition, which can increase the rate of innovation. However, it can also result in unwarranted hype, as companies race for quantum supremacy and attempt to wow investors.
Is there a quantum computing supremacy race?
Why has the development of quantum computers been likened to historical space and arms races? Firstly, money is certainly being thrown at the technology. In the US, up to $3 billion of federal quantum projects are either in operation or planned, including the $1.2 billion National Quantum Computing Initiative. China is committing at least $15 billion in quantum computing over the next five years, but unofficially this figure is a lot higher. Despite this, talent shortages and supply chain bottlenecks hamper developments across the industry.
The first developer of a powerful, fault-tolerant quantum computer will have a long list of potential applications to choose from. This is in addition to the deserved international prestige. Quantum computers could be used to transform the defense and space sectors, for example.
The US Navy is developing atomic clocks and quantum sensors with ColdQuanta for navigation and precision timing in what may be GPS-denied environments. China is also developing atomic clocks and quantum sensors, as well as quantum radars for detecting stealth jets. It has also begun to use quantum-encrypted military communications, which are much harder to crack than conventional encryption methods.
National security concerns also stem from cybersecurity issues. Powerful quantum computers, expected by 2030, will be capable of defeating RSA using Shor’s algorithm. RSA secures most of the internet, therefore quantum-resistant encryption is vital, as communications captured today could be broken in the future by quantum computers.
However, there are multiple other factors at play. Any quantum race is intimately tied to developments in AI and cybersecurity, so a broader technology race is a more accurate depiction of the current situation. The significant amount of scientific collaboration between the US, China, and other countries also weakens analogies to historical races. It will prevent one country from pulling away for the time being.
Both the US and China must look for collaboration opportunities with other world-class projects and companies in the EU, the UK, Israel, Australia, and Singapore. This will be key to continuing development. In addition, enabling use cases for the private sector, such as in drug discovery and options trading, will help to increase private investment and innovation.