China claims 'quantum supremacy' as tech race with US and Europe heats up

Our Foreign Staff
·2 min read
Electronics for use in a quantum computer in the quantum computing lab at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.  - AP
Electronics for use in a quantum computer in the quantum computing lab at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. - AP

Chinese scientists claim to have built a quantum computer that is able to perform certain computations nearly 100 trillion times faster than the world’s most advanced supercomputer, representing the first milestone in the country’s efforts to develop the technology.

The researchers have built a quantum computer prototype that is able to detect up to 76 photons through Gaussian boson sampling, a standard simulation algorithm, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, citing research published in Science magazine. That’s exponentially faster than existing supercomputers.

The breakthrough represents a quantum computational advantage, also known as quantum supremacy, in which no traditional computer can perform the same task in a reasonable amount of time and is unlikely to be overturned by algorithmic or hardware improvements, according to the research.

While still in its infancy, quantum computing is seen as the key to radically improving the processing speed and power of computers, enabling them to simulate large systems and drive advances in physics, chemistry and other fields.

Chinese researchers are competing against major US corporations from Google to Amazon and Microsoft for a lead in the technology, which has become yet another front in the US-China tech race.

About | What is quantum computing?
About | What is quantum computing?

In the UK, the first commercial quantum computer will be built in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, as part of a £10m project aiming to make the UK a leader in the technology.

US quantum start-up Rigetti will develop the computer alongside manufacturing firm Oxford Instruments, Standard Chartered, software start-up Phasecraft and the University of Edinburgh.

Google said last year it had built a computer - named Sycamore - that could perform a computation in 200 seconds that would take the fastest supercomputers about 10,000 years, reaching quantum supremacy.

That claim was disputed by IBM. Google said it had chosen a random number generating problem which was difficult and prohibitively time-consuming for a classical machine. But in a technical paper and blog post IBM have shown that it is possible on a normal computer if it has enough storage.

The company’s own supercomputer - named Summit - solved it in just two-and-half days. Although that is vastly slower than the 200 seconds achieved by Sycamore, if true, it would still prevent Google claiming to have made a literal ‘quantum leap.’

Quantum computing | The key players
Quantum computing | The key players

The Chinese researchers claim their new prototype is able to process 10 billion times faster than Google’s prototype, according to the Xinhua report.

Xi Jinping’s government is building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences as part of a big push in the field.

In the US, the Trump administration provided $1 billion in funding to research into artificial intelligence and quantum information earlier this year and has sought to take credit for Google’s 2019 breakthrough.