CHIPS Act Tries to Keep Quantum Away From China

 China and the US chess board.
China and the US chess board.

China's rate of quantum computing research and development is expected to slow down in the coming years, following the US' announcement of the finalized (and clarified) guardrails around its multi-billion-dollar CHIPS and Science Act. The fact that these new clarifications include provisions specifically aimed at quantum computing is a strong indication of just how concerningly close we are to achieving useful enough forms of it.

The guardrails around the CHIPS and Science Act, as issued by the Department of Commerce through NIST, seek to "prevent funding provided through the program from being used to directly or indirectly benefit foreign countries of concern." It's through this lens that the Department of Commerce has classified semiconductors as "critical to national security," subjecting them to increased scrutiny due to their obvious ability to increase a foreign country of concern's technological level.

And apparently, "semiconductors designed for quantum information systems" make the cut. Other clarifications include "Semiconductors designed for operation in cryogenic environments (at or below 77 Kelvin), which includes sensors for quantum computing and superconductor research. "Silicon photonic semiconductors," too, have quantum computing applications. "Semiconductors utilizing nanomaterials, including 1D and 2D carbon allotropes such as graphene and carbon nanotubes" also make the cut.

From a technological perspective, the US covered a lot of ground with these guardrails. But increasingly, it seems that our world isn't exactly what it seems.

Around a year ago, we reported that the United States intended to extend the tapestry of trade restrictions and sanctions toward quantum computing. And now it's happened. But there are many difficulties with technologically restricting a "foreign country of concern" in a globalized world (logistics and international business relations is just one of them).

One of the most fundamental of those difficulties is simply the scope of design and application of semiconductors: Tthey fit everywhere and can be made to aid in performing almost anything. Semiconductors themselves being "critical" would be an unenforceable policy. Hence a need to clarify what exactly these semiconductors "critical to national security" are.

The questions around sanctions, of course, almost always relate to how effective they are. Do these sanctions slow down the "opposition" more than they slow us down? In the case of quantum, the case isn't as clear-cut as one might expect. But then again, we've been seeing sanctions falling short of their intended, projected effects for a while now. There are always back-alleys and gray markets. And there's also the ability to simply cram and outinvent the US's restrictions, which China seems to be doing in some ways.

As quantum computing becomes more useful and more feasible, the world's attention has become more and more focused on this "mostly future" technology. And it's interesting to note how "fast" governments regulate emerging tools (blockchain, quantum computing, generative AI, among others). The US, for one, has shown particular public concern around quantum computing and its potential impact on national security. The National Institute of Standards and Technology itself has been coordinating the federal government's uptake of quantum-resistant encryption, with a few hiccups here and there, perhaps to be expected of something as complex as quantum cryptography.

In general, the US seems to be taking a proactive approach to dealing with whatever problems might scour the world when we reach a post-NISQ quantum era. One of its dark facets (among all the positive ones) is that most encryption will become useless. Most of the algorithms that currently protect all human communication will be breakable.

Quantum computing itself may provide the keys to generate the future's "unbreakable encryption." But the current world of geopolitics simply won't like unbreakable secrets -- perhaps not even in the backyard of a "foreign country of concern." That looks like a facet we should be wary of, at least.