Quantum: New Technological Cold War

Quantum: what are we talking about?

Quantum physics is a theoretical corpus that studies the interaction between elementary particles and atoms. On this nanometric scale, the laws of Newton, so-called classical physics, cease to apply, and only quantum rules prevail.

Current computer systems rely on bits, which are standard units of information that take only binary numeric values, 0 or 1, to enable calculations to be performed. However, their lack of formability is limiting.

Quantum computation, or quantum computation, relies on controlling quantum particles to load data to create qubits. They are similar to bits in traditional data processing, except that they can assume the values ​​0 and 1 simultaneously. This phenomenon of superposition of state is explained by the fact that all probabilities exist at the same time. Do not see an analogy with Emmanuel Macron’s “at the same time”, but rather with the paradox of the dead and living cat from Shrödinger. This parallelism gives the quantum computer exponential computing capabilities, which can be summed up very schematically by a factor of 2n synchronous calculations for a computer equipped with n qubits.

The Universal Calculator, or Large Scale Quantum (LSQ), is a quantum computer whose computational power would allow it to solve complex problems in minutes, with the most powerful modern calculators taking tens of thousands of years. This is called quantum domination.

Technology as an instrument of power: Quantum Supremacy

Quantum will be the substance of a new digital age that is the cause of a worsening of geopolitical rivalries. Because the first nation to achieve this supremacy will not only ratify its technological hegemony, but will also see itself giving an undeniable competitive advantage in many areas, thus increasing its geostrategic dominance. LSQs would in fact be beneficial for medicine in the modeling of new chemical molecules, for agriculture in the fight against food shortages or for the place in the development of new methods of movement in space. They could also break the bitcoin cipher and the RSA encryption algorithm that secures our communication systems, both of which are considered inviolable.

Thousands of qubits are needed to power the universal computer. However, the extreme fragility of the superposition state of these particles is aggravated when they are multiplied numerically, causing a general instability that generates errors in the computational system. As quantum technology is still in its infancy, its complexity remains partially mastered, putting a brake on the development of LSQs that will not see the light of day before the 2030 horizon. Only prototypes of hundreds of qubits, called noisy quantum computers or Noisy intermediate scale quantum (NISQ), are currently under development.

The race for qubits: between information warfare and normative issues

Like information warfare during the conquest of space, today’s superpowers, the United States and China, are rushing to assert their quantum dominance through a host of advertising games. If Google in 2019 thought it had reached it with its 54-qubit “Sycamore” quantum computer, by 2020, researchers from the University of Science and Technology in China claim that “Zuchongzhi 2”, their 66-qubit superconducting computer, is ten million times faster than the Americans. Especially since the Chinese achieved the feat of creating a photon computer a year later, called “Jiuzhang”, which in a millisecond was capable of performing a task that a conventional computer would have performed in 30 trillion years. Recently, the American IBM, in turn, has asserted its supremacy by exceeding the symbolic bar of 100 qubits with “Eagle” and already promoting the arrival in 2023 of a computer equipped with 1121 qubits, called “Condor”. And its national competitor Google is outbid with a computer of one million qubits for 2029.

This Sino-American emulation is not limited to the sole framework of a qubit race, but extends to patentability, whose strategic interest is above all normative. In fact, quantum technology, due to its technical nature in case law, is an invaluable source of patents. Backed by 20 years of military research conducted by Darpa – an agency of the US Department of Defense responsible for research and development of new technologies intended for military use – and their champion IBM, the United States leads the number of patent applications in quantum computing. In quantum communications, however, it is China that rises to first place in the rankings. In addition, in 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite into space, whose ultimate goal is to develop a sovereign quantum internet to free itself from NSA surveillance. Perhaps this is an opportunity to explore further for Europeans seeking independent access to the Internet, especially through their DNS4EU project?

Technological turn of Europe and France

Although aroused too late by the call for quantum development coming from the world of university research, Europe does not intend to remain an observer of a Sino-American bipolar world. For this, it has set aside a budget of one billion euros for the Quantum Flagship initiative to accelerate research in this area. Also to secure a prominent place in the particle war, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and France adopt national plans. But Jewels, the most powerful German quantum computer in the EU, built by the French leader Atos, is barely in eighth place in the world. Some will find the rationale for this weakness in the investment gap between the old continent and the superpowers. But the EU benefits from an asset other than financial leverage: its scientific expertise.

In addition, the absorption of Europe’s technological backwardness may be reflected in the recent CEA Communication. Unlike the Americans who are exploring the path of superconductors, the French Commission on Alternative Energy and Nuclear Energy has focused its research on silicon or germanium semiconductors, whose computational reliability is said to be around 99.5%. Despite the presence of silicon in France, China accounts for 71% of world production because France does not consider rare earths to be strategic metals. This poor understanding of the interest in silicon condemns it to be deeply dependent on the Empire of the Middle. However, it is becoming extremely important for the French to secure their technological liberation thanks to the reindustrialisation of their steel subsidiary and the securing of their supplies of raw resources, which must be done through Europe thanks to effective synergy between the members.

For if France aims to become 3ᵉ world power in quantum, without real European coordination from Brussels to rally efforts, this is more like utopian dreaming than optimism. And if the EU recently measured the degree of criticism of the semiconductor industry by investing up to 50 billion euros, it is important that it does the same for the quantity. Otherwise, it risks being orbited in the race for qubits, thus anchoring its diverse technological dependencies in stone, which then becomes almost impossible to get rid of.

Louise Rowehy

AEGE Data Intelligence Club

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