• Quantum computing research has been the focus of tech labs worldwide.

Quantum computing research has been the focus of tech labs worldwide. (Photo : Reuters)

To create a quantum computer that processes data at tremendous speeds--trillions of times quicker than the world's fastest computer, China's supercomputer Tianhe-2--is the target of a prospective game-changing scheme introduced by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

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If the venture becomes successful, the effect of having a China-based lightning-speed computer could make all modern technological developments worldwide during the past 50 years look like baby steps.

Researchers at tech firms, such as Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and Google Inc., as well as governments around the globe, have invested on quantum computer technology in recent years.

Alibaba has been the first Chinese tech firm to join the worldwide quest for commercial uses of accelerated computational capacity on a large scale. Alibaba broadcast in late July that Aliyun, its cloud-computing arm, had signed a 15-year partnership with CAS, a top government research entity, to open the Shanghai-based Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory.

Lab supporters anticipate not just the ground-breaking computing power of the next-gen computer, but also its potential for foolproof cryptography. A quantum computer could also be of great help in fine-tuning weather forecasting, stock market analysis, astronomical research, and other major applications.

The e-commerce tycoon committed to support the lab with an annual 30 million yuan over the next five years.

Pan Jianwei, a well-known quantum physics scientist, was hired to be the lab's head scientist.

By 2030, the science lab is expected to have created a generic-purpose quantum computer prototype with 50 to 100 "quantum bits," also known as "qubits," the basic units of quantum information.

Lu Zhaoyang, a lab researcher at the Alibaba-CAS and a quantum physics professor at the Hefei-based University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui, said that a quantum computation that utilizes 45 qubits would be equal to the calculation prowess of the Tianhe-2. This implies that a quantum computer able to process hundreds of qubits or more would leave a regular supercomputer in the dinosaur era.

Commercial Interest

Compared to the investments of other giant firms, Alibaba's investment is much lower. IBM, for example, has spent $3 billion since 2014. However, Alibaba's involvement in a cutting-edge scientific research is China's biggest-ever investment in a major scientific venture by a private company.

Corporations worldwide that have placed their bets on quantum computing have encountered a variety of hurdles, the most major being money and time.

Research on quantum computing not only costs a huge amount of money, but also requires a lot of time. University of London's computer science professor Peter Bentley told the press after the introduction of the Google-NASA lab that Google might have to invest billions of dollars and support scientists for a number of decades before reaping any actual benefits related to quantum computing research.

But Alibaba continued to join the initiative because it saw this blossoming technology as a huge opportunity for the future, Alibaba's chief technology officer Wang Jian said.

"We know quantum computing is feasible," he said. "But nobody knows what a quantum computer will look like."