In just the past several months, China has unveiled a quantum satellite that it says is capable of transmitting data using ultra-secure methods never before utilized for such a task. The satellite establishes a 1,243-mile quantum link between Shanghai and Beijing, a groundbreaking feat that can only be compared to other major milestones like the "space race" that resulted in the Soviet Union launching the Sputnik satellite back on October 4, 1957.
Further, China has also announced that it is opening up a $10 billion quantum computing center in Hefei, located in the Anhui Province. When it opens in 2020, this computing center will focus on not only quantum meteorology but also on building a quantum computer, which would have upwards of a million times more computing power than all of the other computers currently in the world combined.
If we call this field of research the "technology race," then China is right now leading the pack. And that has scientists throughout the West, and in the U.S. specifically, both awed and concerned. What China could do with such technology has the potential to forever change the world, and not necessarily for the better.
"To me, what is alarming is the level of coordination of what they've done," Christopher Monroe, a physicist and pioneer in quantum communications from the University of Maryland, is quoted as saying by McClatchyDC.com.
It is not only these accomplishments that are concerning to many, but also the sheer volume of resources that China is pouring into such research. Learning everything it can about how atoms, photons, and other basic molecular matter can be used to harness, process, and transmit information seems to be where China is spending a bulk of its money these days, setting it far ahead of anything the U.S. is currently doing in this regard.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that their scientists are better," says Martin Laforest, a physicist and senior manager at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. "It's just that when they say, 'We need a billion dollars to do this,' bam, the money comes."
While building a quantum computer is an idea that many in the field have long believed to be little more than a conceptual pipe dream, it now appears that one could emerge in as little as one or two decades, or even less. And where the U.S. stands in the development of similar technology is currently unknown, likely due to any research that might be taking place being under wraps.
"We don't know exactly where the United States is," admits R. Paul Stimers, a lawyer from the Washington law firm K&L Gates who specializes in emerging technologies. "I fervently hope that a lot of this work is taking place in a classified setting. It is a race."
As to how quantum computing might affect current encryption technologies, including those used to power cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, experts warn that these could eventually become obsolete. At the same time, this type of quantum computing technology has the potential to allow for the breaking of "obsolete" forms of encryption "within seconds."
To quote Australian-born mathematician and chief executive of Symantec Corporation, a global cybersecurity company headquartered in Mountain View, California, such a prospect really would mean that "the whole world changes."