The U.S. may be looking to tighten its technological noose on China beyond semiconductors. According to Bloomberg’s sources, the Biden administration has been holding internal and external discussions on further cutting China off from high-tech solutions that might impact national and worldwide security. Foremost are the fields of A.I. software and quantum computing, whose potential for worldwide disruption is still under assessment despite breakneck advances. Further sanctions would add power to existing ones, including China’s quantum computing companies (to a degree).
One thing both technological spaces have in common is that they’re still nascent: every day greets us with yet another quantum computing or AI-related headline. Efforts to regulate China’s access to such rapidly-changing technologies leave the Biden administration between a rock and a hard place. Sanctions targeting China have been shown to have nefarious effects on the world at large and American semiconductor companies in particular, not just on its intending recipient.
Another element any sanctions would have to consider is the technological fields themselves. Essentially, what specific elements for each technology could be sanctioned that would hit China the most and the rest of the world the least? What price – if any – would U.S. companies pay for tightening the noose?
Companies in the quantum computing space might tell you otherwise, but the current approaches to the field showcase the number of potential sanction venues. Should the Biden administration produce sanctions for any kind of quantum computing approach – from superconducting qubits to ion chains? What would it do to the quantum computing research and product market if the sanctions only focussed on certain technologies, disproportionately hitting some companies while leaving others off the hook? What if a new quantum computing (or A.I.) approach surfaces?
Despite the cost and difficulty in perceiving the magnitude of the required U.S. regulatory intervention, China’s efforts in the quantum computing space should give the U.S. pause. The number of accusations flying around regarding I.P. and state secret thefts, paired with China’s clear interest in leading the space’s research and development, open up the doors to immense privacy and national security concerns.
When quantum computing lurches past its current NISQ (Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum Era), it will enable any actor to field a way to crack currently-applied encryption algorithms. This includes data in motion and data at rest – especially any data that has been already stolen in what is known as a “steal now, decrypt later” attack. Nobody knows the petabytes (?) of intercepted data just lying in wait for the moment that a quantum computer is around to destroy their current encryption schemes. The impact of being the first to crack quantum computing cannot be overstated – especially if it’s done by an actor that feels it has a score to settle, even more so when standards for post-quantum encryption are still being discussed.
China has shown incredible resilience despite the ever-tightening sanctions. Even after being cut from the latest manufacturing technologies, the country’s OceanLight supercomputer managed to stand side by side with the AMD-made Frontier in disputing the finalist prize for the Gordon Bell award. The award is directly related to A.I. workloads, and China managed to field a supercomputer powered by 14nm-era hardware to perform work deemed relevant enough for prize contention. It’s extremely likely that China will continue on this road. As they say: where there’s a will, there’s a way.