China advances quantum sci-tech, early blueprint to ‘counter tech blockade’

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Photo taken on May 25, 2016 shows the quantum simulation laboratory under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Shanghai, east China. (Xinhua/Cai Yang)

After a group study session of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee emphasized the importance and urgency of advancing the development of quantum science and technology, scientists lauded the favorable policies while observers noted it shows China’s vision in science in an uncertain world. 

President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of strengthening strategic planning and systematic layout for the development of quantum science and technology at the session held on Friday. 

Xi emphasized the need to strengthen top-level design and forward-looking layout of the area, improve the policy support systems, and speed up breakthroughs in basic research.

He also stressed speeding up fostering talent in the field of quantum science and technology by training a number of high-level talent, establishing a special training plan suitable for the development of quantum science and technology and building a systematic and high-level training platform for talent in the area.

Quantum information science has become a new area of world competition. In the UK, metropolitan quantum networks have been built by the Quantum Communications Hub in Cambridge and Bristol, connected by a long-distance link via London. The EU has documentation to jointly develop high performance computing, including quantum computing, in the next decade. The US has a National Quantum Initiative involving 16 different federal agencies and offices and its technology giants are taking lead in quantum computing. 

China listed quantum communication in its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20). China’s scientific and technological workers have made great efforts to catch up in quantum science and technology and made a number of significant innovations with international influence. 

China launched the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale program, better known as Micius in 2016 and has conducted multiple space-ground quantum communication experiments. 

Chinese scientists are also cooperating with their Austrian counterparts in developing quantum communication technology. 

Quantum communication is commonly used to protect information channels by means of quantum cryptography. QuantumCTek Co, China’s biggest listed company in the field is worth 24 billion yuan ($3.58 billion), but the field overall faces the challenge of high costs in commercial use.  

Guo Guoping, a key member of the research and development (R&D) team and a professor at the Hefei-based University of Science and Technology of China, told the Global Times that China takes a lead in quantum communication but lags three to five years behind in quantum computing. 

The gap is not only in scientific research, but also in simulation and real application of quantum computing, Guo said. 

US companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft are the industry giants while Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu are actively catching up. 

China had nearly twice as many patent filings as the US for quantum technology overall in 2018, a category that includes communications and cryptology devices, according to market research firm Patinformatics. The US leads the world in patents relating to quantum computers, the hottest segment of quantum science and technology, media reported. 

Chinese researchers are also planning to take a quantum leap in computing, and even to compete with Google’s Sycamore which is enabled by a 53-qubit superconductivity system with 99.4 percent fidelity, in 10 years.

Zhu Xiaobo, a professor with the Shanghai-based Institute of Advanced Studies affiliated with the University of Science and Technology of China said in August that a 60-qubit superconductivity quantum computing system with 99.5 percent fidelity could be achieved this year, and in 10 years, the system could evolve into a million-qubit level with a 99.8 percent fidelity, equivalent to, if not better than, its Google counterpart.

Google announced a breakthrough in October 2019. Using the company’s state-of-the-art quantum computer, called Sycamore, Google claimed “quantum supremacy” over the most powerful supercomputers in the world by solving problems considered virtually impossible for normal machines.

Zhu hopes that in 10-15 years, quantum computers can be used to solve real problems in the field of cryptology, rather than being used only to demonstrate their computing capabilities, which is the case for current models.

Observers said this new blueprint in a pioneering area like quantum technology shows China’s vision in basic science and key technologies, which is of more importance when uncertainties in global politics could threaten development and application of technologies. 

China has learned its lesson from the chip industry, and an early layout for quantum technology will prevent that from happening again, they said. 

As introducing talented professionals from overseas has become less possible, it is important and urgent to train young people, Li Chuanfeng, executive deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Quantum Information, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

Some insiders also discussed whether quantum information science should become a first-class discipline instead of a sub-discipline of physics in China as it is now. Such a change means that universities could directly enroll young people with an interest in the field and foster them to become quantum information scientists.

At the group study session, Xi called for efforts to make breakthroughs in key core technologies, ensure the safety of industrial and supply chains, and enhance China’s ability of responding to international risks and challenges with science and technology.

At practical level, Guo suggested that research funds should not only go to universities and major scientific institutes but also be used as leverage to support companies in quantum applications. Such policies will help address the problem of industry-research cooperation as companies are by nature user-oriented, he said. 

It is also timely to reform the evaluation system as quantum computing should not focus too much on theoretical studies and publishing papers. The industry requires a broader horizon for real application and what research can bring about, he said. 

Newspaper headline: China advances quantum development

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