The US and China are in a quantum computing race for dominance. Image: Twitter

Last November, IBM launched its 127-qubit Eagle, surpassing China’s 113-qubit Jiuzhang to become the world’s fastest quantum computer. Now, China risks falling further behind in the quantum computing race as the United States reportedly weighs new export controls on the game-changing technology.

The new ban, if implemented, would target quantum computing, artificial intelligence software and other emerging technologies that could have security implications vis-a-vis China. The ban would mark a next salvo on the Biden administration’s October 7 move to block high-end chips and advanced chip-making equipment exports to China.

Bloomberg reported that US industry experts are now weighing in on the potential parameters of the restrictions, which are still preliminary, and that US allies are being consulted. Analysts say any such ban would further antagonize China, which strongly protested the October 7 bans, and could put the two rivals on a dangerous collision course.

Chinese media commentators say the US aims to strengthen efforts to slow China’s development in emerging technologies, where the two strategic rivals are racing to lead the way. The commentators suspect the US will not only aim to block China from obtaining key quantum computing parts and software but also force other countries to uphold the bans.

The US is making no secret of how it views the emerging and sensitive technology.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a speech last month on technology, competitiveness and national security that “computing-related technologies, including microelectronics, quantum information systems and artificial intelligence” as among developments “set to play an outsized importance over the coming decade.” He also noted the importance of export controls to “maintain as large of a lead as possible” over rivals.

Currently, Alphabet’s Google, Intel, Microsoft and IBM are all investing heavily in quantum computing projects. Other major players in the sector include US-based IonQ and Japan’s Fujitsu Ltd.

IBM is on the cutting edge of quantum computing. Photo: IBM

Quantum computers mark, well, a quantum leap over the speed and power of current supercomputers.

That means they will likely be able to crack and bypass the encryption technologies used to secure current computer communications. More broadly, the technology is expected to unleash waves of new innovation that will revolutionize industry, communications and, crucially, defense.

On September 15, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order urging the US Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment into the US (CFIUS) to ensure more robust consideration of evolving national security risks.

What may otherwise appear to be an economic transaction undertaken for commercial purposes may actually present an unacceptable risk to US national security when conducted with foreign adversaries or countries of special concern, according to the Executive Order.

It said the committee should consider the transaction’s effect on US supply chain resilience and national security across the microelectronics, AI, biotechnology and quantum computing sectors.  

The Biden administration is now working on an outbound investment review mechanism that would scrutinize money heading to certain Chinese technologies, and new quantum computing and artificial intelligence controls could be included, according to an anonymous source quoted by Bloomberg.

Biden has said the new curbs unveiled by the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) on October 7 have already successfully blocked China’s access to key US chip technologies. The curbs have also limited how US citizens and residents are allowed to work and collaborate with Chinese tech firms., a Shanghai-based research institute, noted in several articles this year that quantum computing can be applied in computing, communication, navigation, power and military defense industries. It said quantum computing had the potential to change the results of future wars.

One article said quantum computers can be used to initiate cyber warfare by decoding passwords and bypassing encryption used on current digital computers. It said quantum computing technologies can also be used to navigate drones and submarines.

Another article, citing a report in the European Physical Journal, said a quantum radar would be launched one day and used in space war.

China is making strong progress in the field in the current open trading environment. The 66-qubit Zuchongzhi 2, for instance, is reportedly 10 million times faster than Google’s 55-qubit Sycamore.

China’s Jiuzhang quantum computer. Photo: China University of Science and Technology

In December 2020, a University of Science and Technology of China research team led by scientist Pan Jianwei launched Jiuzhang, a light-based or photonic quantum computer that can work at room temperature. It is said to be 10 billion times faster than Google’s Sycamore.

In May 2021, Pan and his team launched Zuchongzhi 2, a superconducting quantum computer that needs to work at a temperature close to absolute zero. Jiuzhang and Zuchongzhi 2’s details were published last November by the Physical Review Letters, a scientific journal of the American Physical Society.

Soon thereafter, IBM’s Eagle surpassed Zuchongzhi 2 to become the world’s fastest superconducting quantum machine, underscoring the two sides’ budding rivalry in the filed.

Read: New US chip ban takes tech war to dire next level

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3