Is China seeking “quantum surprise?”

By Elsa B. Kania | March 1, 2018

Hype about artificial intelligence (AI) seems at or near a peak. A wave of hype is also emerging around quantum technologies, particularly quantum computing. When these two waves of hype collide, do they simply produce more hype—or could real risks, and a potential military “revolution,” arise at the convergence of AI and quantum computing?

Certainly, when the perils and potential of these technologies are discussed, some exuberance is warranted. Each has been characterized as the “new electricity”—and these are indeed technologies that could transform all sectors and create new industrial revolutions. But for the time being, both AI and quantum technologies remain fairly nascent fields, with limitations that will prevent the rapid realization of their full potential. And as with any technological transformation, anticipating the future impact of AI and quantum technologies in the commercial and defense realms is difficult, if not nearly impossible.

That said, AI is starting to be widely recognized as a potential catalyst for a new military revolution that could transform current paradigms of military power. Unsurprisingly, major powers including the United States and China are actively advancing military applications of AI, competing to innovate in this domain.

Meanwhile, a “second quantum revolution” is under way. The first such revolution in physics unlocked secrets of reality and enabled an initial round of technologies based on principles of quantum mechanics, including lasers, semiconductors, and magnetic resonance imaging. Today’s revolution looks likely to create a range of disruptive quantum technologies that leverage paradoxical principles of quantum mechanics, such as superposition (that is, quantum systems can exist in all possible states at the same time) and entanglement (famously referred to by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”). The harnessing of these unique properties will allow for unprecedented power, precision, security, and sensitivity in quantum applications across communications, computing, radar, timing, sensing, imaging, metrology, and navigation. These varied and disparate quantum technologies, as they develop, will likely produce a range of important commercial and defense applications that bring both lucrative market opportunities and disruptive military capabilities.

It has become clear that China recognizes the potential of quantum technologies to enhance national power—and thus aspires to lead in research and development in this new domain. Xi Jinping himself has highlighted the importance of these technologies. China’s national science and technology plans have prioritized quantum communications and computing. China’s national strategy for military-civil fusion (军民融合)—which focuses on leveraging synergies between defense and commercial developments—also emphasizes these technologies.

Although the United States has been the trailblazer in quantum science, China’s advances and ambitions are starting to challenge the traditional US lead. Certainly, China’s accomplishments in quantum science are sometimes overhyped and exaggerated, particularly in Chinese state media, which are eager to laud China’s emergence as a scientific “superpower.” Indeed, a healthy degree of skepticism remains necessary when considering Chinese advances in quantum cryptography and computing—technologies too often discussed as if their properties were almost magical. Nonetheless, China’s advances to date must be taken seriously. Otherwise, the United States may risk a technological surprise in this domain.

China’s progress. Already, China has become a global leader in quantum cryptography and communications—technologies that might one day provide Beijing a unique level of information security. In August 2016, Beijing launched the world’s first quantum satellite, Micius, and has since used it for groundbreaking experiments and even a quantum-secured video call between Beijing and Vienna. Meanwhile, China is constructing a national quantum network over fiber optic cables that could be integrated with a future constellation of quantum satellites to create a “quantum Internet.”

China’s quest to enhance its information security has been a major impetus for this agenda. The pursuit of “perfect security” through quantum cryptography has accelerated since Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks revealed the extent of China’s vulnerability to superior US cyber and intelligence capabilities. However, the promise of unhackable—or more accurately, “provably secure”—information and communications may prove empty in actuality. In practice, human and engineering errors are likely inevitable. Nonetheless, the construction of these new systems at scale could enhance overall information security in China.

In quantum computing, China was a latecomer. But Chinese researchers are now starting to become serious contenders in the race (or perhaps marathon) to advance quantum computing capabilities. In April 2017, a team from the University of Science and Technology of China claimed it had broken a record previously held by Google when it entangled 10 superconducting qubits, a critical step in scaling toward a powerful quantum computer. Chinese tech giant Alibaba, in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has recently become the second company in the world, after IBM, to provide quantum computing services via the cloud.

Once operational, quantum computers will provide almost unimaginable power. They could be capable of cracking many forms of modern cryptography, in which security relies upon the difficulty of factoring large numbers. That is, quantum computing will mark the start of a new stage in the battle between code-makers and code-breakers. Considerable changes in current cryptographic practices could be required, and such a transition could prove costly and complex, potentially requiring more than a decade to complete.

Future quantum computers could be employed in any context where such power would provide an advantage, likely including complex military simulations and weapons systems. Notably, quantum computing might also be harnessed to accelerate advances in AI. China’s New Generation AI Development Plan includes quantum-accelerated machine learning as a priority. In January, a team of Chinese researchers published a proof-of-principle demonstration of an efficient quantum algorithm to extract useful information from noisy, unstructured data through the use of a six-photon quantum processor. This key breakthrough is characterized as providing “new insights into data analysis in the era of quantum computing.”

Potential Chinese progress in quantum radar and imaging—a discipline with clearer, more direct defense applications—could offset current US advantages in stealth. It is difficult to verify reports (link in Chinese) from the fall of 2016 that Chinese researchers from CETC, a defense industry conglomerate, had developed a single-photon quantum radar that could detect targets up to 100 kilometers away. Still, this reported achievement should be taken seriously, given indications of a fairly robust Chinese effort to pursue multiple types of quantum radar across a number of research institutes. Also, Chinese media have reported that the Chinese Academy of Sciences Key Laboratory for Quantum Optics is building a prototype quantum “ghost imaging” device for use on future Chinese satellites, which could be tested in space by 2025.

As the pursuit of quantum technologies emerges as a high-level priority, China has established the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science. It could become the world’s largest quantum research facility and has received an initial investment of 7 billion yuan ($1.1 billion). According to Pan Jianwei, China’s leading quantum physicist, the lab will pursue research “of immediate use” to China’s armed forces. At the same time, new joint laboratories will deepen partnerships between academics and the Chinese defense industry. Even the Academy of Military Science, the flagship research institute of the People’s Liberation Army, is now recruiting high-level scientific talent to pursue progress in quantum technologies (link in Chinese).

A time for caution. Looking forward, advances at the frontiers of quantum science will be characterized by both international cooperation and intensifying competition. The further development of these technologies will create tremendous opportunities—but may also result in a range of risks.

It is not difficult to imagine that the quest for a quantum computer may result in strong incentives for illicit tech transfer and intellectual property theft via both cyber and human espionage. Once quantum computers become more functional, their ability to crack prevalent types of cryptography could produce an offensive advantage that could intensify information insecurity and instability globally.

Speculatively, the potential synergies between AI and quantum computing raise the question of whether such an acceleration could advance the development of artificial general intelligence that is human-like in its capabilities. This is, in fact, the stated objective of several governments and research institutes worldwide. The risks of such a “superintelligence,” considered by some to be existential in nature, have already provoked fears that advances in AI may be “summoning the demon,” as Elon Musk has memorably warned. Of course, the threats created by future advanced AI may not really be so dire—but merit serious attention nonetheless.

If China shifts its most sensitive military, governmental, and commercial communications to (supposedly) unhackable quantum networks, it could gain an informational and intelligence advantage relative to the United States. Accurate intelligence can be a stabilizing force, so if China were to “go dark,” so to speak—perhaps partly offsetting superior US capabilities in cyber espionage and signals intelligence—the resulting uncertainties could exacerbate misperceptions, intensifying the risk of miscalculation in a crisis.

As quantum radar and sensing advance toward operationalization, the intention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to overcome superior US stealth capabilities is clear. Such a development would undermine a key pillar of US military power. For instance, Chinese media have claimed (with some hype) that quantum radar will be the “nemesis” of today’s stealth fighters, and that ghost imaging satellites will enable the interdiction of stealth bombers. It’s unclear when or even whether such advances may be possible. However, the potential realization of such capabilities could disrupt the regional military balance—and perhaps embolden China to pursue national interests and objectives with greater assertiveness.

Today, the Chinese military appears to recognize an opportunity to seize the “strategic commanding heights” in emerging technologies in which the United States does not possess (and may be unable to achieve) an edge. In the process, the People’s Liberation Army hopes to “leapfrog” the United States by placing major bets in quantum science. These bets likely already amount to billions of dollars. In a time of intensifying strategic competition, the pursuit of military advantage through these new strategic technologies, already well under way, may be difficult to constrain.

Still, the hype and alarmism that often arise around AI and quantum technologies can be unproductive. Despite their spookiness, these technologies are not magical and will remain limited by technical realities. Going forward, the AI and quantum revolutions could have very positive ramifications for human well-being, and thus present good reasons for excitement and optimism. It will, however, still be critical to assess the military applications and implications of these technologies. That is why the United States, to mitigate the risk of a “quantum surprise,” must treat China’s ambitions very seriously—but also take a critical approach to evaluating its advances.


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