In October, the U.S. Department of the Treasury banned the exports of services related to quantum computing and quantum computers to Russia. The sanctions were also imposed on Russian companies that “help support Russia’s war machine” using quantum computing. According to the agency, these measures will further “degrade Russia’s ability to reconstitute its military.” What is going on in the area of quantum technology today and will the ban on quantum computers come as a painful blow?
For starters, Russia does not have its own fully functional quantum computers, but neither does the rest of the world. What is unique about these computers is that due to the laws of quantum physics, it potentially takes them a couple of minutes to find solutions to the tasks which a regular computer will take hundreds of years. The idea of quantum computing was first proposed by Soviet mathematician Yury Manin back in 1980. There are currently prototypes of computers that operate qubits. A qubit can take the value 0 and 1 at the same time, and also can be in a transient state, which helps (theoretically) to deal with very complex tasks. Theoretically – because it takes thousands of such qubits to solve real practical problems that a production facility or a state has. The contemporary quantum computers, if they can be called that, only reach 100 qubits, which are also quite unstable and lose their superposition very easily. So the ban on quantum computers rather looks like an additional PR stunt.
Nevertheless, in 2021, investors poured some $1 billion in the companies that work in quantum computing. According to PitchBook, it is more than in the three previous years combined: $187.5 mio in 2019, and $93.5 mio in 2015. Everybody is going for a rise and investing in the development of capacities that will only be ready in a decade, but investors presume that the commercialization will begin sooner.
In 2013, only a few universities and startups were engaged in quantum computing, most of them being financed by the state. By 2020, there were already some 200 teams, including Russian, on the market that developed a wide range of technologies and applications. For instance, they built businesses on quantum modeling and optimization, linear algebra for artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Regular computers will not go anywhere. Quantum computers will be used only for certain kinds of complex computing problems, or NP types of problems, and the regular computers for everything else. Why shouldn’t quantum computers be used to deal with simple logic tasks? The thing is, it will take a 1,000-qubit quantum computer to multiply two by two much longer than a regular one, but for much bigger money. And most importantly, the probability of getting the correct answer is close to zero: to receive it, the machine would have to multiply two by two several times, analyze the statistics of the results, calculate the expected value, and assess the probability of the correct answer being 4. A quantum computer should be used for tasks that require selecting the best combination out of the millions available – such as for simulating the interaction between complex protein molecules.
Russia is actually at the forefront of the group of countries engaged in developing quantum technologies, accounting for over 4% of research works on quantum technologies globally, and ranking eighth in terms of patents issued in this sector. Obviously, this is not the top place – yet the race has just begun. Moreover, quantum technologies are a rather general concept that includes not only quantum computing, which we mentioned in detail above, but quantum communications and measurement instruments as well. We may be lagging behind in certain aspects – but keeping pace with the times as regards others. In 2021, Russia presented a unique prototype of an ion-based quantum computer. Also, a project proposed at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum involves creating a national quantum network, which cannot be hacked or wiretapped, in order to connect all universities and centers that operate in the field of quantum technologies. A similar network is already operating in a test mode, connecting two Russian capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is one of the world’s largest quantum networks. Unsurprisingly, the Russian Railways, a state-owned company in charge of quantum communications, was also added to the sanctions list.
The use of quantum-inspired algorithms is another example of Russia’s advancing quantum technologies. Such algorithms accelerate the search for a solution on a conventional computer, without using a quantum machine. In particular, quantum-inspired algorithms are expansively used by metallurgists, and domestic companies provide assistance in this regard.
Unfortunately, there has been no news on investments in this sector in Russia recently. Meanwhile, this is a promising trend that could now efficiently replace quantum computers, as evidenced by foreign media reports and amounts of investment. Just recently, the European venture capital company 2xN has invested $120 mio in the development of quantum-inspired algorithms. In Russia, the budget for the quantum computing roadmap stands at $800 mio for 2020–2025.
New sanctions that relate to quantum computing are unlikely to heavily affect this sector in Russia – and they are certainly not going to halt it. Yet, we should remember that not only inactivity but also a substantial lag in this field poses danger for the country as it creates a threat to its national security. Russia’s current technology gap with the USA and China in quantum computing is approximately seven years.
By Dmitry Vasilkov, Founder and CEO, QuSolve