In 2020, China announced its plans to develop the world’s fastest quantum computer, and in October 2021, Chinese physicists revealed Zuchongzhi 2.1. The computer is 1 million times faster than its closest competitor, Google’s Sycamore, and is 10 million times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer. While at first glance, this might just seem like a technological breakthrough, it also shines a light on how China’s quantum technology poses a threat to the world’s cyber security.
The rise of quantum technology
Scientists and researchers have been hard at work in the quantum computing field for decades now. This technology harnesses quantum physics to process algorithms and run tasks far faster than other computers can. It’s based on quantum bits, or qubits – while normal computers store information in bits that can be either a 1 or a 0, a qubit is capable of being both at the same time. This means, therefore, that a quantum computer can vastly outperform an ordinary computer, and the more qubits it has, the faster it can be.
Back in 2019, Google made headlines around the world with the announcement of a quantum computer with a record-breaking 53 qubits. This was capable of solving a complex calculation in a few minutes, whereas a traditional computer would have taken at least 10,000 years to do the same. That was a huge leap forward at the time, but just two years later, China’s already gone ahead and set a new record with Zuchongzhi 2.1. The number of qubits used in quantum computers is growing exponentially, with IBM planning on creating a 1,121 qubit processor by 2023. Now, experts say that we’re on the brink of a quantum revolution – the technology could prove useful in all kinds of sectors, from finance and defence to healthcare and weather forecasting.
The dangers China may pose
Even though the true potential of quantum computing has yet to be seen, and the real dangers of the technology are still a few years away, experts have warned that China may have already started gathering data. In November 2021, analysts at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton reported that Chinese hackers were capable of stealing encrypted data with the view to decrypting it at a later date, as soon as they have the quantum computers powerful enough to handle such a task.
Governments around the world are already trying to combat China’s rise to quantum supremacy. In 2021, the United States imposed sanctions on eight different companies involved in supporting the Chinese government’s quantum computing efforts. This is just one of the many tensions between the US and China right now, but it’s also one of the most serious. If one country manages to gain the upper hand in this field, then the rest of the world will be forced to play catch up, which could take months or even years.
Not only would advanced quantum computers give China the ability to collect and decode international state secrets, but they would also help the country to make scientific breakthroughs. With the computing power that quantum technology provides, they’d soon become world leaders in industries from pharmaceuticals and AI to data analytics and medical research. The rest of the world would quickly be left behind, with China creating ever more powerful computers and more secure methods of cryptography.
The future of quantum technology
This threat is still in the future, though, and even if China may be pulling ahead right now, they haven’t yet won the race. Firms around the world are already working hard at preparing for a post-quantum world, whether China becomes the dominant force or not. Companies like IBM and Google are making advances in creating new quantum computers, but others are trying to combat the risks of quantum supremacy.
One of these firms is Arqit, which is planning to effectively future-proof the world with its state-of-the-art QuantumCloud™ solution. The company will soon be launching satellites into orbit, which will use quantum key distribution (or QKD) technology to encrypt everything from messages and phone calls to banking transactions. This form of encryption ensures that if someone tries to read or listen in on the signals, they’d change the state of the encryption key, and destroy it, rendering it unreadable. Arqit has even been working with government organisations from different countries, including the US and the UK, on its Federated Quantum System, a sign of just how seriously these governments are taking the quantum threat China poses.
China may have turned the tide of quantum technology, but whether it manages to achieve quantum supremacy remains to be seen. Projects like Arqit’s QuantumCloud™ will certainly help, and it’s a sign that companies and organisations are already making the first important steps to combat the threat – we’ll just have to hope they’re not already too late.