Arms race for Quantum Computing

Quantum Computing – The arms race to unlock all the world’s encryptions

Who will be the first to figure out how to control the sensitive quantum particles and have access to the key that can unlock all encryptions? The quantum computer could be only a mere 5 -10 years away. The EU’s mega initiative Quantum Flagship is was officially presented at Barcelona Mobile World Congress last week. But is it enough?

Know-it-alls often remind us ”change is the only constant”. As we are bombarded with headlines about the newest AI (artificial intelligence) technologies that will propel us to a brighter future, or killer robots who will soon get us all, it’s worth keeping in mind that other things will follow. It’ll probably be the quantum computer and then all the world’s encryptions and financial systems can be hacked and several defence systems in use will become obsolete overnight.

Without getting into the peculiar workings of quantum particles, topline message is that we are in the midst of developing a technology that in a matter of seconds can do mathematics that today’s supercomputers can’t handle. If a regular computer is to read a whole library, it does this in a linear fashion, one book at a time so to say, and the faster it does this, the better the computer. The beauty of a quantum computer is that it reads all the books simultaneously. Very cool.

We’ve known for a long time how this works in theory but there are still a lot of practicalities left to figure out. The quantum particles themselves are so sensitive that the computers must be cooled down to -273 degrees Celsius (that’s colder than in outer space) and the whole process is still incredibly expensive. But research has taken great leaps forward in the past 4-5 years.

What’s important to understand is there is currently an arms race going on between about twenty countries and a handful of companies all attempting to build the first real universal quantum computer. There already exists several mini versions of it, such as   D-WaveX2 at Nasa and Google, operating at speeds that are 3600 times faster than the world’s fastest computer.

Quantum technology is not without unimportant strategic and geopolitical consequences for the EU. Whomever is the first figure out how to control these sensitive quantum particles that will be able to unlock all of the world’s encryptions.  The digital world’s security solutions, our banking system, our infrastructure protection, our electricity and water supplies can all be hacked in a few seconds. Some scientists believe that we’re only 5-10 years away from seeing the quantum computer operational.

Cyber security is not the only thing at stake here. Quantum mechanics can also be used to measure and identify objects that today are invisible. Quantum computers will be able to ”see” behind steel walls or even what’s at the bottom of the ocean. Several national defenses’ hypermodern so called stealth technology, which today makes it very difficult to discover ships and submarines, will become useless overnight.

Our Chinese friends are leading the race and are investing heavily in research. During the coming two years, they are building an enormous facility with a massive budget of 11 billion USD in Anhui province. We see signs that many researchers, including Europeans, are heading to China in order to have their quantum physics research financed. The US is so far the runner up, investing over 200 million dollars each year.

The EU has recently launched its quantum research program Quantum Flagship and plans to invest one billion Euros during a ten-year period. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that it’s not the one with the most money that wins.

All eyes on Barcelona WMC last week – The EU Commission funded Quantum Flagship was officially presented and is a key initiative with essential cross functional cooperation involving academia, research institutions, industry and policy makers. The initiative’s main focus is on building networks to enable the transferring of research to commercial applications.

But we are competing globally and standing the risk of not being able to offer researchers enough financing to retain them here in Europe. We need to strengthen the European cooperation and significantly increase the financial aid to our researching universities so that we at least can prevent a brain drain and not be overtaken completely in the era of quantum technology.


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