China’s fastest quantum computer is set for launch but the machine won’t be anywhere near the world’s fastest, underscoring China’s quantum laggardness vis-a-vis the US.
Known as Wukong, Chinese mythology’s Monkey King, the locally-made 72-qubit computer has now in its final testing stage and is scheduled to come online next month, Zhang Hui, general manager of the Hefei-based Origin Quantum Computing Technology, said.
Last November, America’s IBM launched the 433-qubit Osprey, the world’s fastest quantum computer to date. Intel unveiled its 49-qubit quantum chip, known as Tangle Lake, in January 2018 while Google debuted its 72-qubit Bristlecone in March that same year.
Chinese scientists openly acknowledge the quantum gap with the West.
“China is indeed in the first echelon of quantum science research in the world,” Zhang said in a Guancha.cn article in December. “In quantum communication, China ranks among the top in the world in the number of papers and patents.” However, he said, “in quantum computing, we are relatively behind.”
Zhang said that’s because China’s overall industrial foundation is less advanced than the West’s. He noted that the development of quantum computers involves many advanced engineering issues, including the production of superconducting chips and traditional semiconductors – crucial high-tech realms where China lags the US and West.
Currently, China still needs foreign equipment such as electron-beam lithography to make its superconducting chips. Japan, which is following America’s lead in restricting China’s access to high-end chip production equipment, is dominant in the e-beam lithography market.
Citing public data, Zhang estimated that China is about three to four years behind leading countries in terms of quantum hardware. He also added that there is a huge gap between China and the US in the industrial applications of quantum computing.
“Leading players such as IBM and Google started exploring industrial applications as early as the 1990s. But it’s only since the establishment of Origin Quantum in 2017 that we have begun to explore industrial applications,” he said.
He also said Intel enjoys an advantage in the production of quantum chips due to its experience and know-how in making semiconductors.
Banned by the US from obtaining the most advanced chips and chip-making equipment, China is now investing heavily in quantum, artificial intelligence and aerospace technologies with the hope, as expressed by some Chinese media, of passing the West like “overtaking others on a bend” in auto racing.
“At this stage, Zhang said, “these strongest teams in the world are indeed far ahead of us in terms of funds, talents and equipment. I think the goal of ‘overtaking others on a bend’ is still a long way off for us. What we are trying to do is to follow them as closely as possible and make some contributions.”
Until now, the 66-qubit Zuchongzhi 2, launched by Chinese scientist Pan Jianwei and his team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei in May 2021, is currently the fastest quantum computer in China.
While Pan’s team focuses on academic achievements, Origin Quantum has its eyes on commercialization.
The company launched its 6-qubit superconducting chip, known as KF-C6-130, in 2020 and used it in its self-developed quantum computer called Benyuan Wuyuan. It unveiled Benyuan Wuyuan 2 with a 24-qubit quantum chip, KF-C24-100, in 2021.
In February this year, it shipped a 24-qubit quantum computer for the first time, making China the third country worldwide to have built and delivered quantum computers after the US and Canada.
Origin Quantum and the state-owned Shanghai Supercomputer Center said this month that they will set up an innovation technology center to link up their supercomputers and quantum computers.
“Quantum computers are much faster than traditional computers in solving specific problems,” said Li Genguo, director of the Shanghai Supercomputing Center. “They can be used as the accelerator of supercomputers.”
Li said a program will kick off soon to try to optimize the computing powers of supercomputers and quantum computers.
Dou Meng, vice president of Origin Quantum, told media that he only met Li two weeks ago for the first time, and both sides decided to seek synergies.
Dou said Origin Quantum plans to set up its second quantum center in Shanghai as there is huge growth potential in the Yangtze River Delta region, in which 70% of China’s quantum experts and half of the quantum firms are located.
In April 2021, Origin Quantum and Nexchip Semiconductor Corp, which raised 9.96 billion yuan (US$1.44 billion) in an initial public offering in Shanghai last month, set up a laboratory to make superconducting chips.
According to its listing prospectus, Nexchip is 52.99% owned by the Hefei government and 27.44% owned by Powerchip Technology, parent of Powerchip Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp (PSMC), Taiwan’s third-largest chip foundry. All five top executives of Nexchip come from Taiwan.
Nexchip mainly produces auto chips of between 55 and 150 nanometers, low-end products compared with the 7nm to 22nm chips used in mobile electronic products. That means the company is not being affected by US sanctions, which target semiconductors of sizes below 28nm but not yet superconducting chips.
Origin Quantum’s Zhang said the company outsources its chip production to Nexchip’s laboratory and follows the superconducting chip standards of IBM and Google and the semiconductor standards of Intel.
He said it is not a problem to produce several thousand superconducting chips per year but only those with the highest quality will be shipped to customers. The company said earlier this year that it is using its self-developed MLLAS-100 laser annealer to improve the quality of its quantum chips.
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