Domestic competition could cost West quantum race against China, fears expert
The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently called for quantum computing to be more inclusive so poorer regions don’t get left out – but in a world that remains stubbornly polarized between East and West amid growing rivalry between the US and China, how likely is this to happen?
“Leaders in quantum technology must commit to inclusivity in quantum education, to close the divide.” That was the verdict of an article published on the WEF website on January 18, curated by Arunima Sarkar, AI Lead at its Center for Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Jack Hidary, CEO of quantum technology firm SandboxAQ.
But can this lofty goal ever be achieved in a world that seems more divided than ever, with trust between major nations seemingly at an all-time low? The WEF’s own findings suggest that China will be well ahead in terms of its public-sector investment in quantum industries, with the Asian superpower due to invest an estimated $15 billion in the groundbreaking computing technology.
In a world less cynical than this, one might hail this as a major contribution to the well-being of humankind. The problem is, senior officials in the US are increasingly suggesting China will be its main adversary in the tech sphere for the foreseeable future, and with Russia’s war in Ukraine raging ever on, global politics appear to be as thorny and fractious as ever.
Digital divide will be hard to bridge
Konstantinos Karagiannis, director of quantum computing at Protiviti, doesn’t really do politics. Describing himself as more “boots on the ground when it comes to technology,” he notes his primary preoccupation to be the tech world.
Like a lot of people at the cutting edge of science, he would like to see the benefits of quantum computing applied across the spectrum of human existence but is struggling to see how global consensus around the technology – touted as a potential major breakthrough that could revolutionize medicine, energy, and cybersecurity – will come about.
“It's worrying, who's going to get artificial general intelligence first – because that becomes the superpower to beat,” he tells me. “It's always been us and China at the head on that, I'm not spilling any secrets by pointing that out. Quantum is going to be kind of the same thing. You see some startling advances that China has made, they've done some examples of [quantum] advantage, where now there are two types.”
“Other countries are trying to do similar things to become leaders,” he says, referring to the 17 nations cited by the WEF as being major investors in quantum. “When you move into that government level, it becomes about giving your people some access and then also about you becoming a power because we all know quantum is going to be a big difference maker.”
"Everyone wants to be an AI superpower, right? It's almost like a cliche at this point. Quantum could heavily accelerate that in the future."Konstantinos Karagiannis, director of quantum computing at Protiviti
Because quantum computing could revolutionize what Karagiannis calls the “three pillars, which are optimization, machine learning, and simulation,” it will inevitably constitute a milestone in the race to becoming a global tech superpower in the 21st century.
“The use cases fall under very, very serious interest to nation states and industry,” he says. “Everyone wants to be an AI superpower, right? It's almost like a cliche at this point. Quantum could heavily accelerate that in the future.”
Given that international relations have been largely shaped by technology since the original Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century on top of quantum computing being dubbed the fourth such of its kind, it is probably fair to say that the advantages Karagiannis is talking about translate into geopolitical ones.
And in a world where 2.9 billion people – more than a third of the population – do not even have internet access, it isn’t hard to see why many of the poorer nations referenced by the WEF will struggle to benefit from quantum. As Karagiannis points out, even though many quantum machines are technically freely accessible in the cloud, if you don’t have the means to access the worldwide web in the first place, this ‘freedom’ will avail you little.
“Quantum computers are pretty big, expensive, they need a lot of people to maintain them,” he says. “They're nothing you're going to have in your basement. So the real problem with accessing them in general becomes the digital divide – people who can't access the internet won't be able to access these machines. A country that's undeveloped technologically, they're not going to have supercomputing centers. Forget quantum, they're not going to have that either. If you did a heat map of where quantum technologies are burgeoning, in the US, Europe and China, it wouldn't be that dissimilar from a heat map of supercomputing or machine learning.”
Culture of secrecy could cost the West dearly
When I put it to him that the WEF’s call – altruistic as it is – therefore sits at odds with this realpolitik of international relations and global disparity of access to resources, Karagiannis doesn’t disagree.
“A lot of what quantum does tracks pretty well with things like machine learning,” he says. “If you go back and follow the evolution of it, how many people are employed in it now? It's pretty much us and China. And you can say that quantum is going to be somewhat similar. There's going to be universities around the world that are learning in these areas. But if the funding is not there, the research won't be there. If you track the scientific papers published every year, you'll see it's China and us. The bar graph just really shrinks down heavily after that.”
I put it to Karagiannis that it doesn’t sound from what he is saying as though the WEF’s vision statement is likely to be heeded as a call to arms by quantum developers around the globe.
"What I am already seeing is that when someone comes up with a good use case, a good technology, they just don't talk about it. They don't publish it: 'It's mine now, and you can't have it.'"Karagiannis
“I hate when this happens, but the open doors of science slam shut,” he says. “It's kind of frustrating for me because this industry is very young, and I would like to see more sharing of papers and ideas. But what I am already seeing is that when someone comes up with a good use case, a good technology, they just don't talk about it. They don't publish it: ‘It's mine now, and you can’t have it.’ It becomes the approach. So as a result, people aren't learning from each other. There isn’t as much sharing, they are hoping to be the next power.”
And by no means is this attitude of clandestine competitiveness limited to global superpowers vying with one another for supremacy – companies within nations, particularly Western ones, are also jealously guarding their research, he claims.
“The people that make the machines, obviously they want their machines to perform the best,” he says. “They want to be the winners of that race, the one that gets quantum advantage first. They want to be the one that every company has to go to. It's like, ‘Oh, you want to do machine learning on quantum, you have to go to – insert company name – because we're the best, and we keep secret why we're the best.”
Karagiannis implies that this problem is only compounded by the fact that China does not have to face this issue, at least not at home – in other words, the Asian powerhouse is not constrained by a domestic culture of competitive silence, while it arguably benefits from a statist one on the global platform.
“In China, there isn't really any secrecy from what you're doing in the government, everything is very shared,” he says. “I'm not saying shared with the whole world, but let's face it, even their equivalent of Google is essentially an arm of the government, right? I had to speak in China, and my visa was offered to me by [Chinese-language search engine company] Baidu. I went to the Chinese embassy thinking I would need two weeks, and I was getting nervous because of time. And the guy looked at it and said, ‘You'll have your visa today.’”
If this kind of statist cohesion around core industries such as quantum puts China in pole position to dominate them going forward, there doesn’t seem to be much to suggest that Western companies are getting their act together to present a realistic answer to it.
“I just haven't seen any evidence that the path forward is really going to be practical collaboration on the big company scale,” says Karagiannis. “I would like to, but I don't. Ultimately, we don't know the secret sauce – we don't know exactly how IBM is planning on connecting together their machines to get 16,000 qubits. It'll be some form of interconnect, but we don't really know what that is. We don't really know how many modules will be used to interconnect to make a photonic quantum computer with a million qubits. There's all these secrets we just don't know – and I don't know if we ever will. Some things have to remain, I guess, a little internalized. It could be a problem going forward.”
Small firms: the West’s best play against China’s big state?
Smaller companies involved in quantum development could be the answer to having more transparency within the Western industry – assuming these don’t eventually get swallowed by larger players in the market. The WEF says the number of startups globally has increased notably between 2015 and 2021 – from nine to 53 in the European Union, from 15 to 59 in the US, and from one to seven in China.
“Now there are smaller companies who are just solving one little piece of the puzzle and they're available to everyone,” says Karagiannis, suggesting that if these are allowed to work in partnership with larger companies, the outcome could be a better and more transparent working knowledge of quantum computing.
"Can we compete if a nation like China has the ability to cherry-pick whatever it sees as the best and use it, which is what we could suspect is going on over there because of the complete transparency they have?"Karagiannis
“You could sort of mix and match and get a pretty robust knowledge, there are tools that will let you code quantum computers better, and that's purely going to educate you and make you stronger.”
Even then, Karagiannis implies that eventually larger concerns will end up dominating the quantum processor chip market, though he hopes this will not totally eclipse the transparency he would like to see more of. “I think we will see clear powerhouses in the processor space,” he says. “That said, people could still access them.”
He is also cautiously optimistic that major Western companies such as IBM and Google that are heavily invested in quantum development will help to maintain US standing in the global industry, perhaps in spite of their secrecy. “Even if they're not playing nicely with each other, they are still taking advantage of what is leading to stronger engineers and building these really powerful machines,” he says.
But even so, Karagiannis seems unsure whether the Western model of research and development will be able to compete effectively with that of China, whose authoritarian political regime gives it virtually unlimited insight into what is going on across the industry within its jurisdictional borders.
“It's kind of OK, I guess, if there are some secrets [between rival companies in the West],” he says. “But can we compete if a nation like China has the ability to cherry-pick whatever it sees as the best and use it, which is what we could suspect is going on over there because of the complete transparency they have?”
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