Google’s head of quantum computing, Hartmut Neven, says China’s massive investments in technology could place the United States at a major disadvantage in the race to dominate the field of building the fastest computers on the planet.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Neven maintains that today’s edge belongs to the US and that the field is due for exponential growth. Google already struck a milestone in October of 2019 when it made a quantum computing breakthrough. The tech giant was able to use a quantum computer to solve a complex computation in just 200 seconds. In the hands of a conventional computer, that same calculation would have dragged on for 10,000 years.
Such revolutionary developments are heavily tracked by, for example, Bitcoin and crypto enthusiasts who wonder if a new age of quantum computing could shatter Bitcoin’s cryptography as super fast computers crack the computational puzzles that underpin the cryptocurrency’s blockchain-powered, cryptographically secured network.
While industry experts say that Bitcoin could be upgraded with quantum-resistant solutions, the idea of commercially available computers that can solve complex math problems in a matter of seconds suggests some level of threat to Bitcoin and other digital instruments and encrypted communications.
While quantum computing has yet to change the world, Google’s edge in the race for quantum supremacy could be diminished by China.
“We are indeed most worried from an as of yet unknown competitor out of China to beat us in the race to [such a] machine because China, as a society, just has the ability to steer enormous resources in the directions that they deem strategically important.”
“They plan to have three different labs, and they will actually all be devoted to quantum information. That’s how critical they see this field.”
Neven explains the seismic shift that’s in store for consumers once quantum takes off, with a timeline of 10 years for substantive change.
“If you look at different computational modalities, then it turns out that an abacus and a modern digital computer, from a theoretical computer science perspective, they’re really in the same class. But a digital computer and a quantum computer are not in the same class. Why is this? Because if you have a computational task, let’s say you want to add two numbers, you want to multiply two numbers, an abacus and a digital computer do it with the same number of steps. Granted, the digital computer is much faster in each step than the abacus, but they do the same number of steps. In contrast, a digital computer and a quantum computer – in certain cases, a quantum computer can do a task with much fewer steps. And even if each step takes a little bit longer, because there are so many fewer steps, that’s where the speed up comes from…
So you should think of a quantum processor as a co-processor, a little bit like a graphic CPU processor that will accelerate certain tasks but will not accelerate other tasks. For example, something Google would care for – like encoding a YouTube video, uploading it to our servers and eventually serving it. You watch the YouTube video. You could run all of this on quantum processors but it would be a waste. You would not gain much because, for this algorithm, it’s not known you can do it with much fewer steps.”
According to Neven, there are currently only a handful of algorithms that can be accelerated by quantum computing.
Electric car manufacturers, he predicts, will be one of the industries that will be able to leverage the technology.
“In the future race between a Tesla and a Porsche, if one had access to quantum computers and the other company didn’t, the one that doesn’t have access to a quantum processor will lose out because with the quantum process at hand, you will be able to accelerate your battery development very quickly.”
As for the risk of encrypted systems at large, Neven says there are methods of encryption that are immune to quantum attacks.
“So for institutions like Bank of America, CIA, you name it, they would all be able to switch in time. Actually, research has already started on this and it’s accelerating: to deploy a post-quantum [cryptographic] system to secure information so that once there is a big enough machine that can crack current codes [it] would not be able to see those messages.”