Get Ready for Quantum Leap: World Governments Engage in Quantum Arms Race
Ever since the eighties, when the very idea of quantum computing was introduced, the thought of creating a machine that uses the laws of quantum physics to enhance the computational power to a yet unseen scale was haunting the engineering community.
Though, as it turns out, computer engineers, physicists, and entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones who can go crazy about a working quantum computer. It seems that the governments of the world’s leading powers are quite serious, at least, that’s what their astronomical investments in R&D of the area may suggest.
Science Behind the Machine
Basically speaking, a quantum computer is a machine that applies the principles of quantum mechanics to computing to the extent much greater than the existing transistors can technologically afford. Those principles are usually too wild for an average person to accept, and go well beyond the well-known and somewhat shopworn thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger involving a cat in a box that, until opened, remains dead and alive at the same time. Still, the good old dead and living cat is a good place to start with if you want to understand the inner workings of a quantum machine.
So, one of the most fundamental principles of quantum mechanics is the uncertainty principle, which basically says that you cannot know the precise speed and location of a particle at the same time: the more you know about the former, the less you know about the latter, and vice versa. The only thing you can really know when it comes to all things quantum is the probability of certain things. This ambiguity is fundamental to our entire being, as the particles we ourselves consist of are determined by probabilities, not certainties, and that alone might be a scary notion to some.
Another important principle of quantum mechanics is the observer effect, which stipulates that the same particle behaves differently depending on whether it’s being observed, or not. That happens because when you see the particle you mess with the uncertainty principle by knowing its exact parameters, and therefore change the probabilities. That’s what eventually causes the cat to become either dead or alive when you open that torture box where it had been sitting (or lying dead). You see the cat and know for a fact that it’s alive, and a sigh of relief bursts out of your troubled chest. According to the many-worlds interpretation, of course, this means that you’ve just created a whole new universe that is no different from your own, except the cat there is in fact dead. No sighs of relief for your doppelgänger.
Finally, there’s another phenomenon called quantum entanglement that lies at the core of quantum computing. Basically, this effect means that any particle in the universe may become entangled with any other particle, and after that their quantum states will become heavily dependent on each other. More precisely, physical properties of one particle heavily correlate with those of another, even if they’re separated by great distances.
Of course, these are just somewhat simplified explanations of certain quantum effects given for the sake of greater clarity, and in reality things are a bit more complex than that.
So, what does it all have to do with quantum computers? A regular computer, like the one you use to read this feature, can only work with bits of information that themselves can be either 0 or 1. But quantum computers are no Sith and don’t deal in boring absolutes. Thanks to the quantum effects described above, a quantum computer data bit, called qubit in the quantum world, can be both 0 and 1 at the same time, as well as any superposition of those two states. Two qubits can have four states, three of them can have eight, and so forth. In layman’s terms, it means that while a regular computer can only see black and white, a quantum computer sees every color there is, and even those you have not even thought about. They can compute faster, more efficiently, and are downright cooler.
The only problem with them is that, just like any other quantum thing, they don’t give you any certainty. Whatever they do deals with probabilities, not certainties known to our regular computers. Still, come to think of it, that’s only fair considering our own bodies are composed of similar probabilities, huh?
Governments Took It Seriously
Nevertheless, it doesn’t much bother the people who work on developing those machines. Their promise is big enough to draw the attention of such big (and sometimes controversial) sponsors of science as the governments of the United States and China. And even though we’re still pretty far from a really working quantum machine, governments seem to be confident that whoever makes it first, gets an upper hand for life.
So, what gives them enough confidence to be serious about investing billions of dollars in the research and development of such machines?
It is a common belief that quantum computing will ensure industrial disruption on a scale comparable to the invention of the internet. Thus, even in the areas that are not seen as a traditional playground for a government, like financial markets, quantum computers are expected to completely reinvent business processes.
However, when it comes to governments, and most particularly, the military, the prospects opened by quantum computers are staggering. Namely, they can put decryption on a whole new level. The Pentagon seems to be pretty much interested in applying quantum computing to establish utterly secure communications and ensure operation of GPS in denied and contested areas.
“We’re looking at GPS-like precision in denied environments. It often takes several updates to GPS throughout the day to synchronize platforms. We want to be able to move past that so if we are in a denied environment we can still stay synchronized. […] It’s a key area we’re very much interested in. […] The Air Force is taking this very seriously, and we’ve invested for quite a while,” says Michael Hayduk, Chief of the Computing and Communications Division at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.
Legislators seem to be on the same page with Mr. Hayduk.
“Quantum is essential for our national security, for our data security and for our economic security,” says Representative Jerry McNerney. “If we don’t invest in quantum computing research, we’re going to fall behind other countries.”
Other countries are, of course, first and foremost China. As South China Morning Post reported last year, the government has funded the construction of the world’s biggest quantum research facility where it’s going to develop quantum computers and other related tech for the same reasons the Americans are trying to top up their game, like advanced code-breaking.
“Our plan is that by 2020, or maybe as soon as next year, to achieve ‘quantum supremacy’ with calculation power one million times to all existing computers around the world combined,” Pan Jianwei, China’s lead quantum scientist, told Anhui Business Daily, a newspaper owned by the government of Anhui province.
And that’s no joke, considering the construction alone will cost over $11 billion.
Mr. Hayduk, at the same time, believes that it will take the U.S. developers a bit longer to create a minimum viable product.
“In timing and sensing, we see prototype capabilities in a five-year timeframe,” he said.
That’s hardly a wonder, considering the Congress has offered the project less than one tenth of what China is going to spend on theirs, namely around $800 million.
Meanwhile, the U.K. is also working on similar goals, and has invested around $400 million for a program on quantum-based sensing and timing. The E.U. is also going to spend $1 billion over the course of ten years to work on similar issues. Another countries involved in this new quantum arms race are Australia, Canada, and Israel.
So, it looks like almost everyone’s after quantum computers, however, nobody really can imagine the ramifications of its actual deployment, except for, maybe, having the much-hoped-for upper hand in that race. However, as quantum computing can affect not only the military, but the civilians as well, some legislators have started worrying about rolling out a relevant regulatory framework in advance, as a report for the European Commission might suggest.
Legislators from the U.S. also seem to be concerned about the issue. This June, California Senator Kamala D. Harris has introduced so-called Quantum Computing Research Act of 2018, which suggests that a federal research consortium under the auspices of the Defense Department be created.
Meanwhile in the Congress, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas is allegedly working on a somewhat similar piece of legislation called the National Quantum Initiative Act. It uses somewhat different wording and naming, but essentially also proposes to set up a national center for quantum research coordination that would deal with the questions of funding.
Meanwhile, the private sector is also quite interested in the disruptive potential of quantum tech. There are at least 19 publicly traded companies, 64 startups, and 58 investment funds in the industry, according to QuantumComputingReport.com. Some of those companies have already engaged lobbyists to drive up the interest for the technology in Washington D.C., including giants like IBM, Google, and Lockheed Martin.
So, at the end of the day, no regulations for quantum computers exist today. However, those numerous initiatives by legislators from different countries suggest that there surely will be one, at least when quantum computers pass their infancy phase they’re in right now.
Quantum computers as conceived are not there yet, however, considering the intense funding of research and development, and the lively interest to the tech from governments, it’s quite likely that the working prototypes will emerge the next decade.
While many people have tried to predict the exact effect it would have on the economy and politics, it’s still hard to imagine such things with any sufficient certainty, especially considering it’s uncertainty that underpins the very essence of those future machines.
Quantum physics is the area that defies every notion people have about the world they live in. For instance, it stipulates there is a certain probability that all atoms in your body can suddenly, and for no apparent reason whatsoever, teleport to the orbit of Betelgeuse, the second-brightest star in the constellation of Orion. While the entire universe is too small to contain the numerical expression of this probability written down, and you may be almost sure it won’t ever happen, such an event still cannot be fully excluded.
Still, if that happens, and you have a quantum smartphone with you, there’s also nonzero probability you will be able to google how to get out of there, and even the monstrous gravity of Betelgeuse, as well as the lack of air in its vicinity, won’t stop you.
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