Quantum Technology: A New Battleground in Tech Confrontation?

The global confrontation between the two superpowers – the United States and China – is holding back the development of technology. What place can Russia take in the new “technological” world? Ruslan Yunusov, Chief Executive Officer of the Russian Quantum Center and Head of the Project Office on Quantum Technologies at Rosatom State Corporation, writes about this following the results of the related session which took place on October 21 as part of the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Technologically, the world is already becoming bipolar. Despite the fact that the United States continues to maintain a monopoly in a number of key sectors (microelectronics, biotechnology), China is increasingly outpacing other technologically advanced powers (Japan, Germany, South Korea) and directly threatens the global technological dominance of the United States.

However, there are areas in which the US continues to dominate. In particular, in the production of integrated chips, that is, microprocessors (what we call hardware), China is not in first place. There is an explanation: the PRC government made the development of microelectronics a national priority back in the 1980s, but the country faced powerful constraints – restrictions on the transnational supply of equipment. Later, the situation improved slightly, but in any case, today the United States dominates the hardware market and is beginning to put pressure on its opponents, including China. An example is the situation with Huawei: first, the Chinese manufacturer ceased to be able to use the Android operating system, and now the chipmakers must obtain licenses from the US government to supply these chips to Huawei. Shipments of Huawei smartphones in 2021 are expected to fall dramatically just because the company is unable to purchase hardware.

The current level of technology development not only enables the US to take most of the profits from the markets, but also allows control over the use of these technologies. The essence of modern technology wars is driven by the desire of the United States to delay the process of technological evolution in the main competing countries.

The first stage of non-market technological confrontation occurs at the corporate level. The patenting of trivial technologies and patent trolling make it difficult for new players to enter the market, reducing the quality and range of products. The second stage presumes the involvement of governments.

Huawei’s example shows how the trade war turns into a technological one. While conceptually similar in their impact on the market, trade wars and technological competition differ in their motives. Trade wars are fought by economically interested parties, and technological competition is supported by a set of interests that are based on national security.

So, in 2019, the United States for the first time included a number of emerging technologies in its list of export controls. These are, for example, post-quantum cryptography, classical security algorithms. Such control impedes technological and even scientific cooperation between states in areas where ready-made solutions have not yet appeared.

Quantum technologies are a new battlefield in this technological war, because they will be the driver of technological development in the next 15 years.

There is good reason to believe that quantum supremacy will indeed open the way for new technological domination. The PRC government made quantum technology a national priority ten years ago, and by now China has significantly overtaken the United States in patenting. At the same time, the United States is leading in scientific publishing. From a technological point of view, the world is becoming bipolar, and in this regard, Russia has inevitably found itself in a sphere of influence.

Tech War: How Far Will It Go? The Fourth Session of the 17th Annual Meeting

It is important to note that Russia lags behind in a number of key technologies and has a modest domestic market, which makes many projects economically unviable. Nevertheless, taking into account technological risks, Russia can effectively concentrate itself on really important areas – historically strong industries (nuclear, military, space technologies) and on new, promising areas (artificial intelligence, quantum technologies).

Quantum technologies have a huge “disruptive potential”, as evidenced by the enormous dynamics of development over the past five years. This is one of the areas where Russia is able to play on an equal footing with the leading countries of the world, but the inclusion of foreign partners in the programmes should take place, provided that several foreign players remain in competition in the Russian market, in order to exclude a dependence on one of the partners. A few months ago it became known that India has launched its quantum program, and the creation of a common market for quantum technologies with India may be one of the solutions.
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