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The United States and China both see quantum technologies as key to national security and economic progress


By Jeremy Hsu

作者Jeremy Hsu

A few days before Christmas, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that devotes more than US $1.2 billion to a national effort dedicated to quantum information science over the next 10 years. The National Quantum Initiative Act represents a bipartisan U.S. government push to keep up with China and other countries in developing technologies such as quantum computing, quantum cryptography, and quantum communication—all of which have some potential to upset the balance of economic and military power in the world.


But it’s more of a marathon than a sprint, Kania explained. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine acknowledged as much in a recent report that suggests a general-purpose quantum computer is still more than a decade away. Engineers must still figure out how to build much larger arrays of fragile qubits that remain stable long enough to perform useful computations.


China’s national ambitions take a quantum leap


China’s interest in quantum technologies goes hand-in-hand with China’s anxiety over U.S. intelligence capabilities and surveillance activities within its borders, said Kania. Chinese leader has emphasized the strategic importance of quantum technologies and even singled out Chinese success in quantum computing during his January 2018 New Year’s address.


Chinese researchers went on to demonstrate several notable early steps in using their satellite to test quantum encryption and setting a distance record for entanglement between qubits involved in communication in 2017.


Another glimpse into China’s national strategy comes from the realm of quantum radar. In September 2016, Chinese researchers reported a new record in developing quantum radar with improved accuracy in detecting targets up to 100 kilometers away—a range that is reportedly five times that of a lab prototype developed by an international team in 2015. Chinese researchers have said their next version of quantum radar would be able to detect stealth bombers and potentially track ballistic missiles.


“China has launched an extremely ambitious program, and so has Europe, the UK, Australia, and Canada,” says David Awschalom, a professor in spintronics and quantum information at the University of Chicago. “All of these have national programs, so it’s a good time for the United States to do it, too.”

“中国发起了一项雄心勃勃的计划,欧洲、英国、澳大利亚和加拿大也是如此,”芝加哥大学的自旋电子学和量子信息教授David Awschalom说,“所有这些国家都有全国性的项目,所以现在也是美国进行这项工作的好时机。

U.S. assembles quantum building blocks


The U.S. National Quantum Initiative charges various government bodies—including NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—with creating a road map for quantum science and technology. But it’s far from just a government-directed effort. Awschalom described the program as having been carefully crafted with input from U.S. industry and academia.


The national program also gives the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy the task of each establishing between two and five centers dedicated to basic research and education in quantum information science.


Breaking out of the lab


It’s especially important to get company researchers involved, Awschalom says, to help translate lab discoveries and prototypes into commercial products and services. Having worked at IBM, he observed that Silicon Valley’s recent interest in quantum computing and related technologies has provided a healthy resurgence in company-backed basic research jobs.


“IBM, Intel, Google, and Microsoft—all four of these major tech companies are actively engaged in quantum information science in deep and meaningful ways,” Awschalom says.


Developing talent is crucial for any country involved in quantum research. A U.S. national program for quantum science and technology may help ensure the “consistent and basic levels of funding” to attract and retain leading researchers, according to the CNAS report.


The report also recommends that the U.S. National Science Foundation establish a scholarship program with a service commitment that encourages students to pursue careers in quantum science. Similarly, it suggests creating a U.S. national laboratory for quantum science and technology that could promote private-public collaborations with funding for long-term research projects.


“Our students and graduate students shouldn’t all expect to be in academia—they should be spread throughout national laboratories and companies,” Awschalom says. “Many of my own students are working at IBM and Google, and they’re loving it.”