Commercial applications for quantum computing are still a distant reality, says Tencent researcher

Celia Chen

Despite a significant breakthrough by Google in achieving quantum supremacy last month, commercial applications for the technology are still a distant reality, according to Tencent Quantum Lab director Zhang Shengyu.

“People are always talking about the possible applications, such as in materials, medicine and artificial intelligence. But how to make it a reality is a problem puzzling the world,” he said. “Scientists have never been too optimistic. I always believe we are far away from the commercial application of quantum computing.”

Quantum computing is still in an early stage, and Zhang called for open discussion and collaborative communication in order to develop the technology.

“Google undoubtedly has excellent achievements in quantum computing and is leading the globe in some ways,” Zhang said. “In general, the US and Europe, with more quantum computing scientists, outpaces China in breakthroughs and talent acquisitions.”

Tencent Quantum Lab, set up early last year, “aims to connect fundamental theory with practical applications in the fast-growing sector of quantum information technology,” according to its website.

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The laboratory director’s comments, made on the sidelines of Tencent’s fourth Teng Yun Summit in Beijing, come after Google announced a major breakthrough last month – its 53-bit quantum computer Sycamore had taken just 200 seconds to perform a calculation that the world’s most powerful computer would take 10,000 years to crack.

Google had hailed the achievement as the first demonstration of quantum supremacy, where a quantum computer outperforms a conventional computer in a specific task.

Quantum computers, which take a new approach to processing information, are theoretically capable of making calculations that are orders of magnitude faster than what the world’s most powerful supercomputers can do.

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Zhang, who was a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before he joined Tencent Quantum Lab last January, said he hoped companies and academic institutions would continue communicating openly in order to develop the technology.

“In my view, most top talents in quantum computing originate from universities,” he said. “Universities and companies remain the two important places for quantum computing and the beauty of serving for a company is that we can work with people who have different research backgrounds.”

Zhang added that scientists in his lab come from backgrounds including computer science, physics and chemistry.

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Chinese enterprises have a shorter history of exploring quantum computing compared to their US counterparts. Google, for instance, first set up a quantum computer programme 13 years ago, while fellow US tech giant IBM has made intensive investments and built prototype machines over the years.

Chinese tech giants, including Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and telecoms giant Huawei Technologies only began setting up labs for the development of quantum technologies in the past few years.

Still, the companies’ investments in the field echo Beijing’s recent quantum ambitions.

While China has not revealed its total investments in the field, it launched a “megaproject” for quantum communications and computing which aimed to achieve breakthroughs by 2030 as part of the country’s 13th five-year plan introduced in 2016.

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In 2017, China started building the world’s largest quantum research facility in Hefei, central China’s Anhui province, with the goal of developing a quantum computer. The National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences is a US$10 billion project due to open in 2020.

Pan Jianwei, dubbed “the father of quantum” by Chinese media has his lab in the University of Science and Technology of China, a top Chinese University also based in Hefei.

China filed almost twice as many patents as the US in 2017 for quantum technology, a category that includes communications and cryptology devices, according to market research firm Patinformatics.

The US, however, leads the world in patents relating to the most prized segment of the field – quantum computers – thanks to heavy investment by tech giants including IBM, Google and Microsoft.

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