Feature image by Nicolas Hoizey via Unsplash

Remember the space race? If you lived through it or learned about it in school, you’ll remember the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reach outer space. As monumental as landing the first man on the moon may sound, the space race was about far more than that. In the short term, the space race was about proving which country had the best science, technology, and economic system. In the long run, it was about global influence and power.

Many people believe the U.S. and China are competitors in a new race today. Instead of getting to the moon, this is a ‘race’ to accomplish the world’s next technological feat. The ongoing development of a useful quantum computer has been dubbed the ‘quantum race’. But is this comparison helpful for understanding what quantum innovation around the world looks like, or is it just click-bait?

New Frontiers

The ‘quantum race’ echoes the space race, just as the space race was a continuation of the nuclear arms race that came before it.

Like the space race, the ‘race’ to develop quantum computers explores new frontiers and may push the world into a new technological chapter. But while the frontier of the space race was as big the universe, the new frontier in quantum computing is so small it’s invisible to the naked eye.

From the infinite to the infinitesimal, the relative size of these frontiers is only where the differences begin.

A Marathon of Uncertainty

To be fair, a ‘race’ probably isn’t the right term for any of these concepts. The space race lasted around three decades, and the nuclear arms race stretched even further than that—about 45 years. Technological innovation is usually a long game.

You could say that the ‘quantum race’, like the technological races before it, is really more of a marathon.

Thinking about a race usually brings to mind images of winners and losers, a track, a starting line and a finishing line. Now, imagine running a race with no defined track, where you don’t know how far away the finish line is, nor what it really looks like. That’s quantum innovation.

As the rise and fall of ‘quantum supremacy’ has shown, the finish line of the ‘quantum race’ is both difficult to define and probably further away than we think.

Researchers are applying several different approaches to building quantum computers. They don’t know which one will be the best. Any estimates of when a quantum computer will be capable of solving real-world problems are informed guesses—the reality is that even the researchers building quantum computers don’t exactly know the right way to go about it, or how long it will take.

It’s more accurate (and way less catchy) to say that the ‘quantum race’ is more of a marathon of uncertainty.

Winners and Losers

In the context of the Cold War, both the nuclear arms race and the space race were competitions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In contrast, the players developing quantum computers are far more diverse and global.

According to the Canadian research group, CIFAR, as of January 2021, 17 countries have some form of national initiative or strategy to support quantum technology research and development, and another 3 have strategies that are in various stages of development. 12 countries have significant government-funded or -endorsed initiatives and another 14 countries in and around Europe are involved in several Europe-wide initiatives.

That makes a grand total of 46 countries involved in building quantum technologies—so this is no two-man ‘race’. In fact, there’s plenty of international collaboration. Tech companies building quantum computers, like D-Wave and IBM, have shared their quantum cloud resources, and the quantum innovation landscape is full of international teams and multidisciplinary, global institutions.

This is not to say that there aren’t competitive aspects of quantum innovation. However, a race implies winners and losers. And as Toby Walsh, artificial intelligence researcher at the University of New South Wales has said on the question of the ‘quantum race’: “It might not be a race. And if it is a race, it might be a race that all of humanity wins”. Any technology will likely have an impact on international security, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also present an opportunity for society at large to benefit.

Different Lanes

While quantum computing is probably the most well-known quantum technology, there are several fields where quantum innovation is taking place. Along with computing, quantum sensing, communication, and simulation are the four main lanes of quantum innovation. These fields are all based on the principles of quantum science and often overlap, but they each produce different applications.

Though China and the U.S. are often thought of as opponents in the ‘quantum race’, these two superpowers have specialised in different areas of quantum innovation. Where China is the world leader in quantum communication, the U.S. leads in general-purpose quantum computing.

As Nikita Chiu, robotics researcher from the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs at Oxford University, points out, the different quantum technologies being developed by different countries  aren’t inherently in conflict—they can actually complement each other. A global effort to create shared guidelines and goals for the responsible development of quantum technologies could help to facilitate that relationship.