In July of this year, the scientists of the Chinese University of Science and Technology presented Zuchongzhi: it is the most powerful quantum computer in the world. As always in these cases, it is only a prototype with no practical applications e the functioning of which was described in a study which has not yet completed the review process.
Despite this, the news caused quite a stir: with his own 66 qubits (the information unit behind quantum computers), Zuchongzhi would be more powerful than Sycamore, Google’s 53 qubit system that, in 2019, gave us projected into the era of quantum supremacy, demonstrating how these systems are able to quickly perform operations that would take an unreasonably long time even to the most powerful supercomputers in the world.
According to the paper, Zuchongzhi would have used 56 of its 66 qubits to solve in 72 minutes an operation that is 100 to 1000 times more complex than the one carried out by Sycamore. Leading the team that designed this system, among other things, is the quantum physicist Pan Jianwei, formerly responsible for the development of Jiuzhang, a Chinese quantum computer presented in December last year and based on photons (while Sycamore and Zuchongzhi exploit superconductors).
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A race whose finish line is not (yet) seen
So, is China winning the quantum computer race? It is too early to say, especially since these systems are now able to solve only theoretical problems, created solely for the purpose of demonstrating its potency and devoid of any practical application. In the future, however, quantum computers could be used to simulate chemical reactions at the molecular level, develop new drugs more quickly, or create extremely efficient solar panels. Others predict an exponential improvement in meteorological sciences, in the field of artificial intelligence, in seismography, in the analysis of financial markets and, more generally, in all those sectors that are particularly complex and dominated by great uncertainty.
Not only, as Scientific American explains, “A sufficiently powerful quantum computer would theoretically be able to overcome much of the cryptography used today to protect, for example, e-mails and Internet transactions”. Although these are still distant goals possible applications they give an idea of the strategic importance of quantum computers, their geopolitical implications and why, ultimately, they are at the center of a new technological race between China and the United States.
A race that, at the moment, seem to see China has a slight advantage (which, as seen, claims to have designed the two most powerful quantum computers in the world), but in which the gap is still small. While estimates vary, governments in both nations are thought to be funding this research field with around $ 100 million a year. Not only that: although China has filed more patents related to quantum technologies in general, the United States has a clear advantage in terms of the number of patents quantum computers alone. Another crucial difference, obviously linked to different political systems, is that Chinese research is almost entirely concentrated in a few state universities and companies with close government ties, while in the United States it is scattered among dozens of private companies and universities.
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The probable overtaking made by China in the quantum sector, however, has already provoked a response from the United States, which in a new bill they aim to allocate $ 1.5 billion for communications research, with particular attention to quantum technologies. After artificial intelligence and 5G, a new technological battlefield has opened up between the two world superpowers.