Birth of China’s Quan­tum Com­puter

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Edited by Li Zhuoxi

The no­tion of a quan­tum com­puter is al­ready well-worn ter­ri­tory in sci­ence-fic­tion lit­er­a­ture and movies, and re­al­ity is fi­nally catch­ing up. On May 3, 2017, in Shang­hai, the Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence in Quan­tum In­for­ma­tion and Quan­tum Physics un­der the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences (CAS) an­nounced that China had con­structed the world’s first quan­tum com­puter based on sin­gle pho­tons that goes be­yond the early clas­si­cal com­puter, a devel­op­ment that could turn tra­di­tional com­put­ing up­side down.

Pro­fes­sor Pan Jian­wei, a renowned Chi­nese physi­cist and a CAS aca­demi­cian, led the project. “The things we may one day be able to do with quan­tum com­put­ing are be­yond our imag­i­na­tion,” he says. “China is get­ting closer to the crit­i­cal shift from quan­ti­ta­tive change to qual­i­ta­tive change in its quan­tum com­put­ing re­search.”

Beat­ing the Most Pow­er­ful Su­per­com­puter

What ex­actly is a quan­tum com­puter? In physics, a quan­tum is the min­i­mum amount of any phys­i­cal en­tity to be in­volved in an in­ter­ac­tion. All mi­cro­scopic par­ti­cles, in­clud­ing mol­e­cule, atom, elec­tron and pho­ton, emit dif­fer­ent forms of quan­tum. From CD play­ers to mas­sive fiber-op­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems, mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing ma­chines in hos­pi­tals and scan­ning tun­nel­ing mi­cro­scopes, quan­tum tech­nol­ogy has grad­u­ally pen­e­trated ev­ery as­pect of daily life.

An early clas­si­cal com­puter has mem­ory made of bits de­fined as ei­ther a one or a zero. How­ever, a quan­tum com­puter is a com­pu­ta­tion sys­tem that makes di­rect use of quan­tum-me­chan­i­cal phe­nom­ena to per­form op­er­a­tions on data, which is much faster. For ex­am­ple, fac­tor­iz­ing a 300-digit num­ber, a task that would take an early clas­si­cal com­puter 150,000 years, can be ac­com­plished by a quan­tum com­puter in one sec­ond.

“China’s cur­rent quan­tum com­puter model uses ten qubits,” re­veals Pan. “How­ever, with 50 qubits, it could beat the fastest su­per­com­puter in terms of processing some spe­cific prob­lems.” He com­pares to­day’s quan­tum com­put­ers with early clas­si­cal com­put­ers be­cause “our quan­tum com­puter is only a ‘kid’, so it’s only fair to com­pare it to other kids.” Pan’s team plans to build a model with 20 qubits by the end of 2017, and its com­put­ing ca­pac­ity is ex­pected to sur­pass that of the fastest lap­top on the mar­ket.

No­bel-ready Chi­nese Sci­en­tist

Pan, a lead­ing Chi­nese quan­tum physi­cist, is clearly a key fig­ure in the coun­try’s quan­tum com­puter project.

Pan is a sci­ence leg­end in the eyes of many. At 29, he co-au­thored an ar­ti­cle about quan­tum tele­por­ta­tion that was se­lected by the in­ter­na­tional aca­demic jour­nal Na­ture as one of 21 clas­sic pa­pers for physics over the past cen­tury along­side the dis­cov­ery of the X-ray by Wil­helm Roent­gen (1845-1923) and the devel­op­ment of the The­ory of Rel­a­tiv­ity by Al­bert Ein­stein (1879-1955). At 31, he was ap­pointed pro­fes­sor at the He­fei-based Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China (USTC). At 41, he was elected a CAS aca­demi­cian, the youngest aca­demi­cian in China at that time. At 45, he won the first prize of Na­tional Nat­u­ral Sci­ence Awards, China’s high­est sci­ence award which has been granted to top sci­en­tists in­clud­ing Hua Luo­geng, Wu Wen­jun, and Qian Xue­sen. Some even think Pan came close to win­ning the No­bel Prize ten years ago.

In the field of su­per­con­duct­ing quan­tum com­pu­ta­tion, China has no first mover ad­van­tage and lacks pro­fes­sion­als. Con­cerned about this sit­u­a­tion, Pan sent stu­dents with di­verse aca­demic back­grounds to study in Aus­tria, Ger­many, Switzer­land, the United King­dom and the United States and later “brought” them back. This en­sured that his team had the most ad­vanced knowl­edge in spe­cial­ties such as cold atoms, pre­ci­sion mea­sure­ment and mul­ti­pho­ton en­tan­gle­ment ma­nip­u­la­tion. In re­cent years, the team’s re­search has been pub­lished in many renowned in­ter­na­tional pe­ri­od­i­cals in­clud­ing Na­ture and Sci­ence.

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