China has revealed its economic roadmap for the next few years, and among the government's most aggressive objectives feature some significant breakthroughs in quantum technologies – which, if they are achieved, would firmly establish the nation as a leading quantum superpower.
This year marks the start of China's 14th five-year plan, which sets goals and strategies for developing the country's economy up until 2025. Drafted in collaboration with the government's official political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
Quantum scientist Pan Jianwei, who is a member of the CPPCC, said that the plan includes "major national scientific and technological projects in frontier fields including quantum information technology."
China is already actively involved in quantum communications, among others, and the country's efforts are set to increase further. China said one goal of the plan is to create a long-distance and high-speed quantum communication system that is compatible with classical communication technology.
Quantum networks, which are at the core of quantum communication systems, enable physically separated quantum devices to exchange information in the form of quantum bits, or qubits. Although still in the very early stages, these networks are generating a lot of enthusiasm in the research community: for example, a network connecting many small quantum devices together could start solving the problems that are currently impossible to run on a single quantum computer.
Governments around the world are actively investing in quantum communications and networks. The US Department of Defense (DoD) recently published a step-by-step strategy to creating a fully fledged quantum internet; in the EU, the Quantum Internet Alliance was formed in 2018, also with the objective of building up a large-scale quantum network.
Creating a quantum network, however, is an engineering challenge that is yet to be entirely solved. Some terrestrial networks have already been developed using fiber-optic cables; last year, for example, US-based scientists built a 52-mile system in the suburbs of Chicago. But the difficulty lies in scaling up the network, meaning that the "long-distance" communication system, that China is now aiming for, is particularly ambitious.
Another way to create quantum networks is to use satellites – an avenue that Chinese scientists has been exploring for many years. In 2017, the country's satellite Micius successfully sent qubits to ground stations up to 745 miles away, as part of an experiment to use quantum networks to generate ultra-secure, next-generation cryptography keys, in a process called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). A satellite-based quantum network will remain a key research topic as part of China's new five-year plan.
The Chinese government is also setting high expectations in the field of quantum computing, with plans to achieve the coherent manipulation of more than a few hundred qubits before the end of the 14th five-year plan, while also developing quantum simulators that can perform beyond classical computers in solving a number of problems.
With the goal of manipulating a few hundred qubits, China's plan is roughly in line with the targets of other leading quantum players. Last year, for instance, IBM disclosed a roadmap for its quantum computing developments that includes a 1,121-qubit device for release in 2023, and the ultimate goal of building a million-qubit quantum system.
Alongside private companies, many governments are also ramping up their efforts to push quantum technologies in what is increasingly seen as a "quantum race". The UK is halfway through a national quantum technologies program (NQTP), which has received more than £1 billion ($1.37 billion) combined investment; the US, for its part, signed the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018, which came with $1.2 billion to be invested in the field; at the same time, the European Commission launched a €1 billion ($1.20 billion) quantum flagship.
The US is largely considered the biggest competitor due to the country's culture of commercializing university research; but with more countries joining the quantum bandwagon, analysts are closely following developments in the field.
"There are lots of startups in the US, but they also have 'big tech' companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel, who have a lot of cash to invest in R&D and are running quantum programs that are hoovering up some of the best academics," Simon King, partner and deep tech investor at Octopus Ventures, tells ZDNet.
"China is definitely worth watching too, also with some fantastic institutions and academics, but it's much harder to tell where they're at in terms of commercializing it."
As King notes, there is little data available to measure the scope of quantum technology research and development in China. As part of the 14th five-year plan, the central government has committed to increase expenditures on "basic research" – which concerns the study of potential breakthroughs – by more than 10%; but how much this represents exactly, and which share will be dedicated to the quantum industry, remains to be revealed.