Students rescue quantum computer from late-night disaster, but China's extreme work culture raises questions

·4 min read

Water leaking through the ceiling of a Chinese national research facility might have destroyed a new-generation quantum computer under construction if not for the quick action of students working late.

The incident has brought attention to the fragility of the hi-tech machines, but also the vulnerability of the humans who design and operate them.

Around 2am on Sunday, 26-year-old doctoral student Zhong Hansen was working at the Hefei National Laboratory for Physical Sciences at the Microscale in Anhui province when he noticed water spilling into his lab, according to an official investigation.

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The lab was filled with expensive equipment, some of which was unique. More than 180 superconducting detectors cooled by liquid nitrogen alone cost more than 24 million yuan (US$3.7 million). They were part of Jiuzhang 3, China's next world-leading quantum computer based on light, and Zhong was working late writing code for an experiment.

He found the water was coming from a locked laboratory. After calling for help, other students also still at work joined him in the rescue bid. With the help of security guards they forced the door open and stemmed the leak.

The authorities awarded Zhong and four other students 120,000 yuan (US$19,000) between them. In a statement on Thursday, the national research centre said much equipment might have been destroyed and the Jiuzhang 3 project "delayed by over a year".

But China's research community, where overtime is the norm, is asking why the students were working through the night and into the early hours of Sunday.

"We know they are working hard, but not that they are working so hard," said a quantum scientist in Beijing who asked not to be named.

In 2019, Google announced it had a quantum computer that would finish a calculation in seconds that would take the fastest supercomputer 20,000 years. China did not have a similar machine that could compete.

Google's claim was later proven to be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, in less than two years China had built a superconducting quantum computer much more powerful than Google's light-based quantum computer. Chinese physicists said Jiuzhang 2 could calculate in 1 millisecond a task that would take the fastest supercomputer 30 trillion years.

It is widely believed that intensive investment by the government enabled China to catch up quickly in the field of quantum computing. The hard work and personal sacrifice of Chinese researchers, especially PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows, remained little known.

Although a student, Zhong played a key role in China's quantum computer program, according to a report by Xinhua in May. He was the lead author of a paper on the world's first quantum computer based on light, and designed important experiments for Jiuzhang.

"In quantum research, every step is new and risky," he was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying.

"In our team, quite a few members are in their 30s or 20s ... doing an experiment is like looking for the right path in countless crossroads sometimes. Failures are the most common. When there is a problem, we have no choice but to redesign the experiment and repeat again and again," Zhong said.

According to a recent study led by the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development in Beijing, nearly all Chinese scientists worked longer than the legal eight hours a day.

"It is also common for researchers in various scientific and technological institutions to work overtime on weekends, and the average length of work is more than two hours. In universities and medical institutions, the overtime work exceeded four hours," said the study published in the journal Forum on Science and Technology in China in May.

The study found that in general, the quality of research by Chinese scientists did not increase with the excessive work. The long working hours also had "a significant negative influence on their physical and mental health", especially those working on weekends.

"The mind and body of scientists are in a state of overload. They do not have time for exercise and quality sleep," the study said.

China has the world's largest workforce of scientists and engineers. But in recent years some leading young and middle-aged researchers have died unexpectedly because of excessive work or pressure, according to state media reports.

The Chinese government has introduced measures such as cutting the workload and increasing the frequency of health checks for researchers. But according to some Chinese science policy experts, it is unlikely the government will regulate to ban scientists from working overtime.

The overall pressure on China scientists was unlikely to drop in the near future as China's competition with the US intensified, they said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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