China bet big on quantum computing. Now the US races to keep up.

How Jack Ma changed China

The United States just took a step forward in its battle for global computing supremacy.

The US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Thursday to help it match China in quantum computing capabilities. Quantum computers promise to be orders of magnitude faster than the traditional computers we use today.

The bill was passed shortly after the Center for New American Security, a Washington, DC-based think tank of former Pentagon officials, warned in a new report China’s focus on quantum technologies could help it to surpass the United States military.

Traditional computers store data as a binary digit, like a light switch that’s on or off. Quantum computing relies on qubits, which can be in many positions at once.

This creates new possibilities for more powerful computers, and quantum advocates speak excitedly of new options such as more secure communications and improved cancer treatments.

“Quantum may be the compute technology of the next 100 years,” Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel told CNNMoney earlier this year. “This is something like a space race, it comes around once in a generation.”

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Intel, Google and IBM are among several American companies that are developing quantum technologies. But China stands out globally for its energy and investments.

“They have a quantum satellite no one else has done, a communications network no one else has done, and workforce development program to bring new Chinese quantum engineers online,” said Paul Stimers, founder of Quantum Industry Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of the American makers of quantum technologies. “You start to say, that’s worrisome.”

US stealth technology, a long-running military edge, could become obsolete due to quantum technologies, the Center for New American Security researchers caution. It could also become hard to keep an eye on China, and more difficult to guard sensitive US information.

For the first time in recent history, the United States faces the danger of being surprised by technologies another country possesses, Elsa Kania, one of the report’s authors, told CNNMoney. But predicting how powerful quantum technologies will become, and how fast they will do so is difficult, she added.

Congress isn’t alone in embracing quantum computing. In June, the White House announced a new subcommittee in the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate quantum information science research and development.

There’s significant hype in the quantum computing industry, and reasons to be overly concerned with possible dangers. A world-changing quantum computer is likely 10 years away, according to Clarke. Today, there are no guarantees quantum technologies will succeed. Qubits fail a lot, and they need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures — a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

China has launched a quantum satellite, but its abilities are extremely limited when compared with the superpowers quantum advocates expect the technology will one day perform.

“The satellite is absolutely useless in terms of doing anything right now, but it demonstrates a capability right now that’s fairly impressive,” Stimers said.

CNNMoney (Washington) First published September 14, 2018: 4:30 PM ET

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