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US blocks export of quantum computing tech to Chinese organizations

Quantum computers could crack government communications and make the US military's jets and submarines more vulnerable, the Commerce Department says.

Honeywell quantum computer
An ion chamber houses the brains of a Honeywell quantum computer.

The Commerce Department on Wednesday barred US firms from exporting quantum computing technology to eight Chinese companies and labs to try to keep the country from decrypting sensitive US communications and developing new military technology.

"Global trade and commerce should support peace, prosperity, and good-paying jobs, not national security risks," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

Though still technologically immature, quantum computers eventually could crack conventional encryption. The US government also is leading an active program to develop post-quantum cryptography, but communications that are intercepted today could be exposed if quantum computers become powerful enough.

Quantum computers take advantage of the physics of the ultrasmall to perform a radically different type of computation than conventional computer chips in today's phones, laptops and supercomputers. But today they work only at small scales, are prone to errors that derail calculations and are finicky enough to require ultracold conditions.

The department also pointed to quantum computing military risks involving "counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications." It detailed in the Federal Register the Chinese organizations added to its entities list involving export controls.

Another market where quantum computers also have potential is simulating molecular structures that could lead to new materials. Military technology has benefited immensely from materials science in the past, so quantum computing could lead to new breakthroughs.

To capitalize on these breakthroughs, many US companies are investing billions of dollars in developing quantum computers. That includes Google, IBM, Microsoft, Honeywell, IonQ, Rigetti, D-Wave and Intel. Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in November that Chinese researchers are tied with Google in the race to develop quantum computing technology.