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Technology

Google quantum computer opens door to next US-China battle

A billion times faster, milestone brings transformative technology closer to reality

Quantum computers, like Google's Sycamore system, may eventually be able to break data encryption methods that standard computers cannot. (Photo courtesy of Google/NASA)

TOKYO -- A recent breakthrough in quantum computing by Google has put a spotlight on the global competition to harness a technology that has the potential to upend foundations of today's digital world, including algorithms that play a crucial role in keeping data secure.

In a paper published Wednesday, scientists at the American tech giant said they had used a quantum computer to perform in just a few minutes a task that would take thousands of years with a traditional supercomputer -- making the quantum system 1.5 to 2 billion times faster.

The project, a partnership with NASA, is just one example of national efforts in the U.S., China and beyond to further research into quantum science.

Quantum computing is among the science and technology innovation projects listed in Beijing's current five-year plan. Big tech companies are involved in the field, including Alibaba Group Holding, which partnered with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to set up a quantum computing lab in 2015.

The U.S. released a national quantum science strategy last year, and Washington has earmarked roughly $200 million in annual funding for research in the field. IBM, Microsoft and other tech heavyweights are also part of America's quantum science plans.

Japan was once a leader in the quantum race. In 1999, tech group NEC developed a fundamental building block of quantum computing technology. But Japanese companies largely gave up on basic research around 2000, letting other players take the lead.

Quantum computers use so-called qubits, which can exist in multiple states at once, allowing for performance far exceeding that of traditional computers. Though the technology remains two or three decades away from commercialization, researchers are already grappling with its security implications.

Algorithms widely used to encrypt data transmitted online and to ensure the security of "crypto assets" such as bitcoin exploit weaknesses of classical computers, particularly their trouble with breaking down very large numbers into smaller factors. Quantum computers will not share these shortcomings.

"In the future, when ideal quantum computers are complete, our current mainstream encryption methods will fail," said Takeshi Shimoyama of Japan's Fujitsu Laboratories.

The U.S. government's National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to standardize new "quantum-resistant" encryption methods.

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