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China can help drive global progress in quantum computing

Asian country has began investing in quantum technology and is at a similar starting point with other economic powers in this field, says Shanghai-born Turing Award winner Andrew Yao.

China is progressing well and stands on the same starting point as other economic powers in the quantum computing arena, but local organisations still fall behind their western counterparts in research experience.

China in recent years had begun investing in quantum technology, initiating several national projects in quantum communications and computation. And it seemed likely to continue its investment in future, said Andrew Yao, a Turing Award winner who is currently a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences in Beijing.

In fact, he noted that several countries worldwide including Singapore, China, the US, and in Europe had started major projects in quantum, which would see significant progress over the next decade. "I believe China, in this arena, is at a similar starting point with other economic powers and it is progressing very well," said the computer scientist.

Yao is the first and, to date, only Chinese citizen to receive the award, which is described as the Nobel Prize of computing. Given by the Association for Computing Machinery since 1966, it is presented to individuals recognised for their contributions "of a technical nature made to the computing community".

Yao received his Turing Award at the turn of the century, in recognition of "his fundamental contributions to the theory of computation", which included cryptography and pseudorandom number generation.

He acknowledged that China today was not globally recognised as a tech innovator that was comparable to Silicon Valley or Japan or even India, and was perceived more commonly as a manufacturing and production hub. However, he said the Asian economic giant had the potential to take the lead as an innovator, especially since this would be critical for the country to continue driving its economic growth.

He added that it had done well in terms of innovating in the high-tech area, noting that the country's place here was perhaps "under-appreciated". He pointed to Chinese companies such as Alibaba and its fintech subsidiary Ant Financial, which had proven their ability to be innovative in their fields.

The two companies had stepped up to design their own software algorithm to create a social credit scoring system because China had lacked such rating structures, making it difficult for ordinary folks and small businesses to secure loans. The system used data from Alibaba's online marketplace services to establish credit scores.

The Chinese market, however, lacked scale and depth especially in corporate research when compared to the likes of IBM and Google, Yao said. In this aspect, he added, China still had some ways to go in the quantum field, where projects were mostly led by the public sector.

This might be due to several factors, he theorised. Chinese companies, for instance, might not have as deep pockets as their western counterparts to invest in research and development (R&D). Their priority also was focused on sustaining their business and churning profits to ensure short-term returns, especially if they had shareholders to appease.

Furthermore, the larger US companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft had accumulated many years of experience in building and nurturing research talent, Yao said, noting that some of them might even have stronger research capabilities than professionals working in the research field.

As a result, these US organisations were in a better position to look ahead, identify key technology drivers 20 years down the road, and dedicate their research teams to develop capabilities in these areas. In comparison, Chinese companies might not have access to the right research talent and be able to follow through on projects for the future, he said.

Quantum computing to improve future lives

And quantum computing will play a vital role in improving lives in the future, Yao said. He explained that quantum technology had the ability to manipulate electrons in the tiniest objects and utilise these to service mankind through various ways, such as communications and computer systems.

The microelectronics revolution in the last seven to eight decades had provided many essential life services, including the internet and personal computers, among others. However, the technology had been reduced to such a tiny cell that it could no longer progress if things remained as status quo, he said, pointing to the need for quantum computing to achieve further technological advancements.

Quantum technology likely would enable bigger compute power to be built into much smaller machines, for example, shrinking an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner used in hospitals to the size of a desktop. This could pave the way for major progress in the fields of material science and material designs, he noted.

Yao added that quantum computers were expected to be able to simulate quantum phenomena, solving quantum equations so complex that computers today would not be able to crack.

This also could provide absolute predictions of the behaviour of design materials, removing the need to carry out costly experiments. With quantum computers generating accurate predictions, bad designs could be thrown out quickly and more suitable designs identified.

Such use cases, though, would take another 10 to 15 years to come to fruition, while the industry figured out the right components and processes required to put together a working system.

While current digital computers used bits to perform calculations, quantum computers would run on subatomic quantum bits, or qubits, which could take multiple states simultaneously. Before such systems could be built, researchers would need to determine, for instance, how qubits could be controlled or put together to build large-scale computers.

Noting that quantum computing was more delicate than nanotechnology, Yao explained that it remained unclear which technology--among several viable options available--would be most effective and should be used to power quantum computers. He added, though, that the industry had made significant progress in this aspect and in the midst of identifying potential components.

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