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Japan steps up quantum push as U.S. and China forge ahead

  • January 25, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:27 a.m.
  • English Press

AKIRA OIKAWA and NATSUMI IWATA, Nikkei staff writers


TOKYO — Japan will revamp its national quantum technology strategy, aiming to become self-sufficient in the area as the U.S. and China continue to make progress on mastering the critical next-generation technology.


The current strategy focuses on basic research by such institutions as universities. Tokyo will now look beyond that and cultivate industry through such measures as support for startups. An expert panel met Monday to start mapping out the changes, which the government aims to approve by June.


Japanese companies excel at using quantum cryptography for highly secure data transmission. Partners including Toshiba, NEC and Nomura Holdings announced in mid-January that they have successfully used the technology to transmit data used in stock trading.


But quantum encryption requires costly specialized equipment that has become a hurdle to broader adoption. In addition to supporting research and development, the government will consider offering tax breaks to help grow the market.


Bulking up the quantum sector at home will be central. As the global semiconductor shortage has put a greater focus on economic security, Japan will look to shift toward domestic production of quantum encryption equipment, such as photon detectors, for which it now relies on outside sources. Building domestic supply chains for other components will be a priority as well.


But quantum computing requires a wide range of technology, including processors, control and measuring devices, and manufacturing equipment. Gaining the capability to compete on all of these fronts will be a significant challenge.


The U.S. and China now hold a clear lead. “In quantum computing, quantum communication, and quantum sensing — three consequential subfields within quantum information science (QIS) traditionally led by American researchers — China is catching up and, in some cases, has already overtaken America,” according to a December report from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


The paper cites China’s fast-growing number of patent filings in the field, which totaled 1,157 in 2018, compared with 363 in the U.S. and just 53 in Japan.


China has launched a quantum communications network spanning the roughly 2,000 km between Beijing and Shanghai, aiming to expand it further. It is also reportedly using the technology more broadly in such areas as finance, and Yusuke Kaneko, an expert at the Japan Research Institute, sees exports on the table in the future.


“There’s a sense that developing encryption technology will strengthen [China] as a country,” Kaneko said.


America’s strengths lie in innovation driven by the private sector. Google in 2019 said it had achieved “quantum supremacy,” completing a task in about three minutes that it claimed would have taken the best classical supercomputers 10,000 years. It is pouring billions of dollars into quantum technology, a level of spending that would not be easy for Japanese companies to match.


Amazon Web Services has also joined the fray, recently announcing the opening of a quantum computing research center. And startups have cropped up to challenge these giants, such as optical quantum computing company PsiQuantum, which announced a $450 million funding round in 2021.


While the private sector is taking the lead in bringing the technology to market, the government is involved in “building up basic strength in development and cultivating talent over the long term,” says Masahiro Takeoka, a quantum computing researcher at Keio University.


“I feel that the U.S. and China are investing with the sense that they are creating a new industry,” said Tennin Yan, CEO of QunaSys, a Japanese startup that develops quantum computing software.


Washington drew up a national quantum technology strategy in 2018 and has passed legislation to invest up to $1.3 billion in the five years through fiscal 2023. China is making a national effort to ramp up its quantum push, building a roughly $10 billion national research lab in Anhui Province.


While Japan more than doubled quantum-related investment in its fiscal 2022 budget to 80 billion yen ($700 million), it still has a long way to go to catch up.


“We can’t win against the rest of the world on state funding alone,” a government source said, echoing a common concern over budgetary limitations in Tokyo. Japan will need to attract private-sector funding to better support startups in the field — or risk falling behind as it did with digital technologies.


The new strategy also outlines plans toward turning the idea of a quantum internet into reality. With countries including U.S. already laying the groundwork for the technology, Japan faces pressure to make proactive moves in the quantum field.

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