The race toward a new computing technology is heating up — and Asia is jumping on the trend

  • Japan has made key advancements in the quantum computer race, India has developed its own strategy for the technology, and debates are simmering over whether China has surpassed the U.S. on some fronts.
  • Quantum computing will ultimately speed up the computational power that drives many industries and could affect everything from drug discovery to how data is secured.
  • However, while the technology could transform industries like pharma, it could also present security challenges.

Quantum computing was already gathering pace in Japan and elsewhere in Asia when the University of Tokyo and IBM launched their new quantum computer last year.

The computer was the second such system built outside the United States by IBM — the latest in a string of key moves in quantum research.

The university and IBM have led the Quantum Innovation Initiative Consortium alongside heavyweights of Japanese industry like Toyota and Sony — all with a view to nailing the quantum question.

Quantum computing refers to the use of quantum mechanics to run calculations. Quantum computing can run multiple processes at once by using quantum bits, unlike binary bits which power traditional computing. 

Challenging U.S. ‘hegemony’

The new technology will ultimately speed up the computational power that drives many industries and could affect everything from drug discovery to how data is secured. Several countries are racing to get quantum computers fully operational.

Christopher Savoie, CEO of quantum computing firm Zapata, who spent much of his career in Japan, said technological development has been very U.S.-centric. But now, Asian nations don’t want to be left behind on quantum computing, he added.

“Nation states like India, Japan and China are very much interested in not being the only folks without a capability there. They don’t want to see the kind of hegemony that’s arisen where the large cloud aggregators by and large are only US companies,” Savoie said, referring to the likes of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

China, for example, has committed a great deal of brainpower to the quantum race. Researchers have touted breakthroughs and debates are simmering over whether China has surpassed the U.S. on some fronts.

India, for its part, announced plans earlier this year to invest $1 billion in a five-year plan to develop a quantum computer in the country.

James Sanders, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, told CNBC that governments around the world have been taking more interest in quantum computing in recent years.

In March, Sanders published a report that found governments have pledged around $4.2 billion to support quantum research. Some notable examples include South Korea’s $40 million investment in the field and Singapore’s Ministry of Education’s funding of a research center, The Center for Quantum Technologies.

Where will it be used?

All of these efforts have a long lens on the future. And for some, the benefits of quantum can seem nebulous.

According to Sanders, the benefits of quantum computing aren’t going to be immediately evident for everyday consumers.

“On a bad day, I’m talking people down from the idea of quantum cell phones. That’s not realistic, that’s not going to be a thing,” he said.

“What is likely to happen is that quantum computers will wind up utilized in designing products that consumers eventually buy.”

There are two major areas where quantum’s breakthrough will be felt — industry and defense.

“Areas where you have HPC [high-performance computing] are areas where we will be seeing quantum computers having an impact. It’s things like material simulation, aerodynamic simulation, these kinds of things, very high, difficult computational problems, and then machine learning artificial intelligence,” Savoie said.

In pharmaceuticals, traditional systems for calculating the behavior of drug molecules can be time-consuming. The speed of quantum computing could rapidly increase these processes around drug discovery and, ultimately, the timeline for drugs coming to market.

Security challenges

On the flip side, quantum could present security challenges. As computing power advances, so too does the risk to existing security methods.

“The longer-term [motivation] but the one that that everyone recognizes as an existential threat, both offensively and defensively, is the cryptography area. RSA will be eventually compromised by this,” Savoie added. 

RSA refers to one of the most common encryption methods for securing data, developed in 1977, that could be upended by quantum’s speed. It is named after its inventors — Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman.

“You’re seeing a lot of interest from governments and communities that don’t want to be the last people on the block to have that technology because [other nations] will be able to decrypt our messages,” Savoie said.

Magda Lilia Chelly, chief information security officer at Singaporean cybersecurity firm Responsible Cyber, told CNBC that there needs to be a twin track of encryption and quantum research and development so that security isn’t outpaced.

“Some experts believe that quantum computers will eventually be able to break all forms of encryption, while others believe that new and more sophisticated forms of encryption will be developed that cannot be broken by quantum computers,” Chelly said.

“In particular, [researchers] have been looking at ways to use quantum computers to factor large numbers quickly. This is important because many of the modern encryption schemes used today rely on the fact that it is very difficult to factor large numbers,” she added.

If successful, this would make it possible to break most current encryption schemes, making it possible to unlock messages that are encrypted.

‘Stop-start’ progress

Sanders said the development and eventual commercialization of quantum computing will not be a straight line.

Issues like the threat to encryption can garner attention from governments, but research and breakthroughs, as well as mainstream interest, can be “stop-start,” he said.

Progress can also be affected by fluctuating interest of private investors as quantum computing won’t deliver a quick return on investment.

“There are a lot of situations in this industry where you might have a lead for a week and then another company will come out with another type of the advancement and then everything will go quiet for a little bit.”

Another looming challenge for quantum research is finding the right talent with specific skills for this research.

“Quantum scientists that can do quantum computing don’t grow on trees,” Savoie said, adding that cross-border collaboration is necessary in the face of competing government interests.

“Talent is global. People don’t get to choose what country they’re born in or what nationality they have.”

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