FOR THE WEEK OF AUG. 26, 2019
Science frontier: We'll hear more about quantum technology as U.S. and China make advances
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Experts use "revolution" to describe breakthroughs in an leading-edge field of physics called quantum technology, which could transform information processing. America and China are pacesetters in this promising specialty. Some U.S. scientists and government officials say big Chinese investments are helping it catch up with Western research and even pull ahead in a few areas. At a conference this summer in Shanghai, China, physicists from that country said they're building hack-resistant communications networks and designing sensors to see through smog and around corners.
Those projects and others are based on sophisticated technology to build more "super-computers" by harnessing the distinct properties of atoms, photons and electrons. Quantum mechanics is a science that describes the unique behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic level – a minuscule scale where particles smaller than atoms don't conform to traditional laws of physics. In fact, it may be possible for one particle to be in different places at the same time -- a difficult concept to understand. But knowing how subatomic particles interact could lead to major leaps.
Scientists use the technology to develop new kinds of computers and communications networks, and sensors for imaging and measuring things in novel ways. For instance, advances could help identify new chemical compounds to treat intractable diseases, and eliminate traffic snarls by predicting and managing vehicle flows. Powerful quantum computers also may be able to crack all existing forms of encryption (encoding) -- a big fear for governments and businesses that handle sensitive data.
This is long-term work. Quantum computer prototypes exist, but aren't more powerful yet than existing computers. A fully functioning one is still at least a decade away, most scientists predict. At stake are big economic and national security advantages. The government in Beijing, the capital of China, invests heavily on research and development and offers Chinese scientists big benefits to return home from Western labs. China had nearly twice as many 2018 patent filings as the United States for quantum technology. "At the highest levels, China's leaders recognize the strategic potential of quantum science and technology to enhance economic and military dimensions of national power," says a report from the Center for a New American Security, a nonprofit policy group in Washington, D.C. It adds: "These quantum ambitions are intertwined with China's national strategic objective to become a science and technology superpower." That brings calls for more U.S. support and spurs Trump administration concerns that some academic collaboration with China may hurt our country.
U.S. experts say: "China is positioning itself as a powerhouse in quantum science. . . . Their breakthroughs demonstrate the successes of a long-term research agenda that has dedicated extensive funding to this domain while actively cultivating top talent." -- Elsa Kania and John Costello, Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.
Chinese physicist says: "The academic exchange benefits both countries. I see no reason whatsoever that the United States government should be concerned and discourage normal academic activities." – Pan Jian-Wei, in email to The Washington Post
American professor says: "There is concern in government about how we are training all these people [from China], and a lot of them are going back to China and competing in technologies that have implications for national security. And we're talking about what to do about it." -- John Preskill, California Institute of Technology physicist
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