Too Little Too Late?: Biden Administration Bans Investment in Chinese Quantum Computing –
Forget about artificial intelligence. The next big development in the tech industry is not chatbots that can respond to you as though they’re human — it’s computers that solve complex problems the way the universe does: with quantum physics.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order restricting U.S. investment into high-tech sectors in China, including semiconductors, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. In a press release, the White House cited national security concerns, pointing out that these technologies are “critical to support [China’s and similar countries’] development of military, intelligence, surveillance, and cyber-enabled capabilities that risk U.S. national security.” (READ MORE: ‘Slaughterbots’: The AI Arms Race Begins)
While most Americans understand how that could be true in the case of semiconductors and AI, the general public is mostly unaware of quantum computing — an industry still in its infancy but potentially capable of making a huge impact on our daily lives.
What Is Quantum Computing?
Unlike classic computers, which use binary language (zeros and ones) to compute and store data, quantum computers use subatomic particles — electrons or photons — which can exist in a multidimensional state thanks to quantum bits, or qubits.
Essentially, “two qubits could represent the sequences 1-0, 1-1, 0-1, and 0-0, all in parallel and all at the same instant. That allows a vast increase in computing power, which grows exponentially with each additional qubit,” Vivek Wadhwa and Mauritz Kop write in Foreign Policy. Because the technology explores different potential realities simultaneously, it will be able to quickly solve problems that would otherwise take millions of years for a classical computer, which has to run each possible answer one by one.
Once it becomes mainstream, quantum computing will majorly impact the world we live in: Financial institutions would be better able to predict stock trends and detect fraud, the healthcare industry could conduct complex research into DNA and develop new drugs, and security systems could better design data encryption and detect hackers. Due to its massive repercussions for the defense industry, some experts suspect that the U.S. military is already researching ways to use what existing quantum technology we have in national security. (READ MORE: Apple v. Biden: A Patently Absurd Approach to Innovation)
Quantum computing also, however, poses some serious risks: It would be capable of breaking much of the cryptography currently used by digital systems, essentially supercharging hacking.
China May Already Be Ahead in Quantum Tech
It’s clear that China is interested in quantum technology and has invested in developing communication networks and processors that utilize it. In 2017, Chinese scientists used advanced satellites to debut the world’s first quantum communication network, and the country is responsible for building two of the world’s most powerful quantum computers.
Some experts have suggested that China may be pulling ahead of the West. Beijing is investing billions of dollars in the industry and is making an effort to encourage Chinese researchers to leave their Western labs. Those efforts seem to be paying off: In 2018, China had “nearly twice as many patent filings as the United States for quantum technology overall, a category that includes communications and cryptology devices,” the Washington Post reported in 2019.
Of course, the United States is also investing heavily in developing its own quantum technology. IBM is currently first in the world when it comes to developing quantum computing, with a 1,000-qubit chip named Condor to be released by the end of this year.
The Biden administration is justifiably concerned that American investment in Chinese development of these kinds of high-tech sectors could inadvertently cause a national security problem. (READ MORE: Adaptive Apps: New Technology Adjusts Lessons Based on Students’ Skill Levels)
Some Republican legislators have suggested that the administration needs to be more aggressive. “The administration scaling back—at a time where aggressive action is needed more than ever—continues the trend of appeasing industry at the cost of national security,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal.
While it might sound like every nerd’s dream to have a computer with a sub-zero compartment holding quantum particles and the capability to solve complex computational problems, the question remains (as it does with AI) is the world prepared to handle that kind of technology?