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Is China seeking “quantum surprise?”

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.(...) Read More

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