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China emerges as quantum tech leader while Biden vows to catch up

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on     3 mins read

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US lags in patents related to next generation communication and cryptography.

The US and China’s competition over high technology has entered a new stage.

The focus is on quantum technology, which will affect economic competitiveness in the medium and long term. The US has been the front-runner of the world in various technologies, but in quantum technology, China is taking the lead. Cooperation with allies such as Japan will be key for the administration of US President Joseph Biden to keep his country competitive in this area.

The Biden administration’s interim national security guidance announced on March 3 states that “America must reinvest in retaining our scientific and technological edge and once again lead, working alongside our partners to establish the new rules and practices.” The guidance pointed out that quantum computing and artificial intelligence will have a widespread impact on the economy, military, and employment, as well as on efforts to improve equality.

On March 5, China announced that it would increase its research and development investment by an average of more than 7% per year in its five-year plan starting in 2021, citing AI and semiconductors as well as quantum technology as important areas.

Quantum computing, the next generation of computers, will revolutionize the development of industrial materials and medicine, as well as the use of AI. The technology will also be able to break the encryption of the internet. Developing quantum computing could lead to the ability to break the codes of other countries’ internet communications.

According to an analysis of patents related to quantum technology by Valuenex, IBM led the way with 140 patents for quantum computer hardware. Microsoft ranked third with 81 patents while Google ranked fourth with 65. The US is also ahead of other countries in terms of software technology.

Graph by Nikkei.

But when it comes to quantum communication and cryptography, China is in the lead. In terms of patents related to hardware in this field, such as devices that exchange photons, Huawei ranked second with 100 patents, and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications ranked fourth with 84 patents. Chinese companies also hold many patents for software technology in this field.

Grah by Nikkei Asia.

Overall by country in quantum technology, China has more than 3,000 patents, about twice as many as the US.

Graph by Nikkei Asia.

China’s focus on quantum communication and cryptography is said to have been triggered by the “Snowden affair” in 2013, when former CIA contractor Edward Snowden exposed intelligence gathering by the US.

In 2016, China successfully launched the world’s first experimental quantum science satellite, Micius. The Center for a New American Security released a report in 2018 that said, “China clearly aspires to lead the […] quantum revolution.”

According to Masahide Sasaki, a fellow at Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, the young Chinese researchers who studied in the West had repatriated to their home country and contributed to the “explosive progress” of quantum technology in China.

The US is looking to catch up, and according to Astamuse, investment in research related to quantum computing that had begun in 2018 tripled from the previous year to more than USD 200 million. The US government is aiming to develop the “quantum internet,” a next generation internet that enables ultra-secure telecommunications.

Graph by Nikkei Asia.

Meanwhile, in January 2021, China announced that it had built a quantum communication network reaching 4,600 km, which can effectively connect satellites to locations on earth.

Japan has more advanced technology in communication and encryption than the U.S., with Toshiba, NEC, and NTT holding nearly 10% of its hardware patents. Tokyo is keen to work with the US in this area. A Japanese government official told Nikkei: “We would like to cooperate with the Biden administration quickly.”

This Japan-US collaboration could be key to determining the outcome in the global struggle for tech hegemony.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It’s republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.

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