The never-ending technological arms race between companies seeking an edge has turned to physics for inspiration. Quantum computing is the latest frontier to be explored not only by giants like Google, IBM, and Alibaba, but also researchers and startups. Each party is trying to become the first to develop a computer whose power would render modern computing standards obsolete – and governments have a vested interest in facilitating, and winning, that battle.

What is Quantum Computing?

For all its promising developments, quantum computing remains a work in progress. It operates using principles inherent in quantum mechanics – the system that explains how very small particles of matter behave. Traditional computers work by storing information in the form of ones and zeroes on pieces called bits. Each bit can hold only a one or a zero at a given time, limiting its flexibility to single courses of action at a given moment.

But quantum physics’ superposition principle – which explains that particles “can exist in different states…different positions, have different energies or be moving at different speeds…[and] are thought of as existing across all the possible states at the same time” – reveals that particles can (somewhat counterintuitively) be in two places at once.

This principle is the basis for the development of qubits (short for quantum bits), which can store both a 1 and a 0 simultaneously. A machine with multiple qubits is thus exponentially more powerful than its traditional counterpart – Microsoft’s Todd Holmdahl, who heads that company’s quantum computing project, explains a quantum computer as a device that “can try all paths at the same time.” That means the ability to develop faster machine learning algorithms, or more quickly and comprehensively search databases for information, among other uses.

U.S. vs. China and Quantum Encryption

That vast potential also has national security implications – even data secured to the highest possible modern standards would be fair game when subjected to a quantum computer. Governments have seized on the possibilities, necessitating the development of new security methods to stand up to that power.

Some, like the Chinese government, believe quantum encryption is the solution. It is a potentially unbreakable security technique that, when done properly, works “not unlike the seal on an aspirin bottle.” Because codes that encrypt data “are sent by photons, the tiniest particle of light,” quantum principles could, with the proper equipment, reveal any tampering.

Experts say the Chinese have a “clear lead” when it comes to the technology. They have formulated “…a very deliberate strategy to own [quantum encryption technology],” according to Duncan Earl, who was previously a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is now president and chief technology officer of quantum encryption specialists Qubitekk.

Part of this strategy is significant financial commitment. The Chinese have “invested tens of millions of dollars building networks that can transmit data using quantum encryption.” This includes a satellite named Micius that recently facilitated a quantum-encrypted phone call between Beijing and Vienna at “a record 4,630 miles,” as well as a 1,200 mile “dedicated quantum communication [ground] network between Beijing and Shanghai,” operational “after four years of planning and construction.”

Conversely, the United States government has “viewed quantum encryption as little more than a science experiment.” Its focus has been on developing new encryption techniques using traditional mathematics to “stand up to a quantum computer…[without] new infrastructure,” but advances made by the Chinese have ratcheted up the pressure to change that approach.

Developments are coming from startups like Qubitekk, focusing on reinforcing existing infrastructure and building new networks. They lack the bottomless capital of the Chinese government, but experts believe the United States’ advantage comes from its research institutions. Researchers at the University of Chicago, for example, are developing so-called quantum repeaters, which “could extend the range of quantum encryption” without massive infrastructure investment. David Awschalom, the professor overseeing quantum research at the university, said the technology is “not there yet,” but expressed confidence that it would be functional in “the next couple of years.”

What’s Next?

While hardware shortages have slowed the development process, enough new manufacturers of necessary equipment are sprouting up to mitigate future supply difficulties. Technology continues to improve, as researchers like Yale’s Robert Schoelkopf develop “superconducting circuits” and qubits built “from materials that exhibit quantum properties when cooled to extremely low temperatures,” with promising results – coherence has improved by a factor of 10 “every three years or so.”

Despite improvements, there is still “no guarantee that a viable quantum encryption network could be built over long distances.” And skeptics remain – certain “security experts question the effectiveness of quantum encryption,” whose newness means it has never been subjected to rigorous testing. But recent developments coupled with continued technological improvement may see quantum computing realize its tantalizing potential. When it gets there, neither the United States nor China wants to be second across the finish line in the race for quantum computing supremacy.