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

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

KEY POINTS

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
in 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 to 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 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, a 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 for 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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