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Russia joins race to make quantum dreams a reality

National initiative aims to develop practical technologies that could mine databases and create ultra-secure communication networks.

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D-Wave 2000Q Quantum Computer processor.

Computers using quantum processors could predict the outcomes of chemical reactions and factor large numbers, such as those used in encryption.Credit: Christian Lademann/Alamy

Russia has launched an effort to build a working quantum computer, in a bid to catch up to other countries in the race for practical quantum technologies.

The government will inject around 50 billion roubles (US$790 million) over the next 5 years into basic and applied quantum research carried out at leading Russian laboratories, the country’s deputy prime minister, Maxim Akimov, announced on 6 December at a technology forum in Sochi. The windfall is part of a 258-billion-rouble programme for research and development in digital technologies, which the Kremlin has deemed vital for modernizing and diversifying the Russian economy.

“This is a real boost,” says Aleksey Fedorov, a quantum physicist at the Russian Quantum Center (RQC), a private research facility in Skolkovo near Moscow. “If things work out as planned, this initiative will be a major step towards bringing Russian quantum science to a world-class standard.”

Quantum computers use elementary particles, which can exist in multiple quantum states at once, to carry out calculations. Quantum bits, or qubits, can in theory process information exponentially faster than the binary one–zero bits used in classical computing. Powerful quantum computers could predict the outcomes of chemical reactions, search huge databases or factor large numbers, such as those used in encryption.

Quantum advantage

Quantum technology already receives massive governmental support in a number of countries. The European Union’s €1-billion (US$1.1-billion) Quantum Flagship programme, first announced in 2016, is expected to produce technology-demonstration projects, such as a quantum processor on a silicon chip, within a few years. Germany announced a €650-million national quantum initiative in August 2019. The Chinese and US governments are also spending billions on quantum science and technology programmes.

The race is on to create quantum computers that outperform classical machines in specific tasks. Prototypes developed by Google and IBM, headquartered in Mountain View, California, and Armonk, New York, respectively, are approaching the limit of classical computer simulation. In October, scientists at Google announced that a quantum processor working on a specific calculation had achieved such a quantum advantage.

Russia is far from this milestone. “We’re 5 to 10 years behind,” says Fedorov. “But there’s a lot of potential here, and we follow very closely what’s happening abroad.” Poor funding has excluded Russian quantum scientists from competing with Google, says Ilya Besedin, an engineer at the National University of Science and Technology in Moscow.

Besedin’s group has made a prototype quantum processor based on superconducting materials that operates on two qubits. Google’s quantum computer works on 53 qubits. Russia is lagging behind, but the national quantum initiative might not have come too late, says Besedin.

“No one is close to the quantum-computing capacity that would be required for practical applications,” he says. “There are many technical challenges, and we’re all looking for new avenues to explore. With serious government support, this is going to become a very interesting research opportunity in Russia.”

Homegrown qubits

The initiative comes as quantum science in Russia begins to recover from the departure of top researchers during the 1990s and 2000s, who left in search of better salaries and funding opportunities. Several Russian quantum physicists working abroad — including Mikhail Lukin and Eugene Demler, both now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts — are on the RQC’s international advisory board. Others, including Alexey Ustinov, a condensed matter physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, have received grants from the Russian government to set up research groups in Russia.

And scientists in Russia are already developing their own approaches to building large-scale quantum computers, says Ustinov. “Russian labs can’t yet compete with the likes of Google,” he says. “But the initiative is a promising start to increase the level of quantum research in Russia. We will see where this will lead.”

But Peter Zoller, a quantum scientist at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, questions whether the initiative alone is enough to lure talented young scientists into quantum research and technology. Rebuilding trust in Russia’s science system and reestablishing the country’s educational tradition, Zoller adds, “will be more difficult than announcing a quantum initiative.”

Nature 577, 14 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03855-z

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