China has been heavily investing in quantum computing technology and is now closely matched with the US in terms of its capabilities, according to a new report.

GlobalData’s new Quantum Computing 2024 states: “China has made enormous strides in catching up with the US”, with the countries now standing “neck and neck” despite pursuing differing strategies.

In the US, private companies are leading development, while in China it is being driven by state institutions.

Despite progress in both countries a so-called “quantum winter” is being predicted, with the industry facing “daunting engineering and macroeconomic hurdles”.

Quantum computers

Quantum computers are machines that use the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information. Using the counterintuitive behaviour of sub-atomic particles, the machines have vastly greater computational capabilities than today’s computers.

They can simulate complicated systems such as financial markets, chemical reactions, molecules and neurons in the brain. A core difference between classic computers and computational computers is in the computational unit.

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While classical computers compute with transistors representing either 0 or 1, quantum computers compute with qubits, which can be both 0 and 1 simultaneously. This means that, where a classical binary computer would solve the possible escape routes of a complex maze one by one, a quantum computer could test all possible escape routes simultaneously.

Geopolitical significance and progress

Quantum computers have applications not just in financial markets or escaping mazes but also in the military and cybersecurity space which explains why they are so sought after in the geopolitical landscape.

The US and China are both developing quantum computing technology. The US has over $4bn quantum computing projects planned, while China has committed at least $15bn over the next five years.

Within China there has been a concerted shift away from private sector development of the technology, with both Baidu and Alibaba withdrawing from the market and donating equipment to the Beijing Academy of Quantum Information Sciences and Zhejiang University, respectively.

China’s recent quantum achievements have been recognised in the report as a key macroeconomic trend. This is due to China being the first nation to achieve quantum supremacy on more than one type of quantum device and to do so on a programmable device.

Aside from the US and China, the UK, EU, Canada, India, Russia, Japan and Australia all have either government-funded programmes and institutes or private-sector ecosystems specialising in creating and applying quantum technologies.

Quantum computing remains nascent both in its industry and technology, and it is too early to make accurate predictions about market size or know when engineering issues will be solved.