Can Europe compete in the quantum ‘space race?’

Can Europe compete in the quantum ‘space race?’

Quantum information science has long been relegated to the realm of academia in the computer industry. However, subsequent advancements have given the industry geopolitical relevance. The quantum rivalry has begun to resemble a new “space race,” with various nations racing to construct their own quantum systems. With the United States and China leading the way, European countries are under pressure to lift their game, and numerous countries, as well as the European Union itself, have made significant investments in this area. However, in order to compete with the two IT behemoths, are European efforts too late and fragmented?

Quantum computing aims to make use of quantum physics’ counterintuitive aspects, such as entanglement and superposition (physics at the atomic or subatomic scale). To do so, a quantum computer uses lasers or electric and magnetic fields to control the states of particles (ions, electrons, and photons). The US and China have the most sophisticated quantum capabilities, with either claiming “quantum supremacy,” or the capacity to solve mathematical problems that would take a traditional computer million years to complete.

China has been working on this since early 2015 when Edward Snowden’s revelations raised concerns about the scope of US spy activities. Beijing has increased its concentration on quantum communications, fearful of American capabilities. 

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Can Europe compete in the quantum ‘space race?’

China is the largest holder of patents in quantum communication and encryption hardware and software, according to various estimates of its spending on quantum research. 

Although China’s quantum computing initiatives are newer, Beijing has been developing quickly. Researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy” in December 2020 and again in June 2021.

When China revealed its capability in satellite-based quantum communications in 2016, Washington became aware of the likelihood of China taking the lead in quantum technology. In response, then-President Donald Trump created the National Quantum Initiative in 2018, which cost $1.2 billion. 

Meanwhile, and perhaps most crucially, major technology companies began investing heavily in their own quantum research. IBM’s Quantum System One system, which was the first two-qubit computer in the 1990s, is currently exported. Google claimed to have achieved quantum supremacy in 2019 with a 53-qubit quantum processor based on superconductors, despite being new to the subject.

The idea that falling behind in quantum computing may pose cybersecurity, technical, and economic dangers is motivating China, the United States, and other countries. For starters, a fully functional quantum computer could allow an adversary to break any current public encryption key. A quantum computer with 4,000 stable qubits could theoretically crack a 2,048-bit RSA encryption key (used to safeguard online payments) in about 10 seconds, whereas a conventional computer would take 300 trillion years. It is possible that such technology will be available in less than a decade.

Second, European nations are concerned about the ramifications of being caught in the middle of a quantum arms race between the United States and China. Quantum technology, for example, is becoming subject to export limitations. These efforts should be coordinated across allies. 

During the Cold War, the United States imposed a ban on the shipment of cutting-edge computer equipment to France, fearing that the technology might fall into Soviet hands. France was inspired to create and fund a national supercomputer industry because of this.

Today, America’s European allies are worried that if there is a tech cold war, they would be unable to acquire crucial technology or trade with foreign nations. In addition to extending its list of prohibited commodities, the United States is adding more and more Chinese organizations to its “Entity List” (for example, Chinese supercomputing centers in April 2021), effectively prohibiting technology exports to such entities – including from non-US enterprises.

European companies are feeling the financial consequences of the growing list of restricted technologies in their international value chains. Some of the enabling technologies needed to make quantum computers operate, such as cryostats, might controlled in the near future. However, there are also fears about China. China has presented additional forms of threats to countries’ technical growth, such as disputing intellectual property rights and academic freedom, and it is adept at economic coercion.

Finally, there is a financial danger. Quantum computing, for example, is a revolutionary technology with tremendous industrial ramifications. While achieving “quantum supremacy” may appear to be a scientific show of force, most governments, research institutes, and startups are actually pursuing the “quantum advantage” — that is, an increase in computing power sufficient to offer a practical edge over classical machines. 

Quantum computing will most certainly become a lucrative enterprise in the next decades, given its many applications in complicated modeling, optimization, and deep learning. 

In what is quickly becoming quantum investment frenzy, several quantum businesses are already going public. Europeans are concerned about missing what could be a significant part of the economy in the twenty-first century.