Aliyun, the cloud-computing arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., is co-founding a quantum computing laboratory with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to help secure its data centers and develop a new type of computer.
The formation of the Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory in Shanghai is similar to research initiatives by Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., International Business Machines Corp. and various government-backed scientific laboratories.
Researchers are trying to find practical applications in computing and cryptography from the theoretically unique properties of subatomic particles. Quantum mechanics may lead to much faster calculations and almost impossible to break cryptography, its promoters argue.
Technology companies are betting that building super-fast computers based on these principles will give them a data-processing edge over rivals. Governments, meanwhile, are pursuing quantum computer research to help them break widely used encryption schemes and to secure their networks against hackers.
The new lab will serve both purposes. The organization will see “hundreds” of engineers and researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Aliyun carry out joint efforts on quantum security and quantum computation, Jianwei Pan, the academy’s president, said in an interview. By collaborating with Alibaba, the laboratory will be able to design large-scale quantum computing simulations that can run on the Aliyun cloud, speeding research, Pan said. Aliyun can also function as a test bed for new quantum technologies, he said.
By the end of this year, Alibaba will have a computer network in Hangzhou based on a quantum security technology, which makes it possible for the company to safely transmit the digital keys that unlock encrypted messages. The network should be able to “connect all the data centers of Alibaba via a secure quantum network” spanning from Beijing to Shanghai by the end of the decade, Pan said. This will help the company protect some of its popular consumer financial services, like Alipay and Taobao, he said.
The quantum-secured networks will precede arrival of a general purpose quantum computer, which Pan says is about 10 years to 20 years away. When one of these systems becomes available, its operator will be able to very quickly break a variety of commonly used encryption standards, said Dan Hayford, senior research leader of the national security division of research and development at the Battelle Memorial Institute. That means it’s sensible for companies to start the work of building networks that are resilient to this form of attack, an effort that may cost only a few million dollars for a link across the continental U.S., Hayford said.
“If you don’t have this alternative deployed and ready to go entire systems will collapse, such as the Internet,” said Michele Mosca, the co-founder and deputy director of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. “We know now that the quantum threat is here and we know the family of solutions.”
Developing quantum technologies puts these companies in a better position to make money from them when they are built.
“It’s like a moonshot, except the application here is much more practical than landing on the moon,” Mosca said. “As this field starts to take off they’re not going to be starting at zero, they’re going to have an internal workforce and expertise. You don’t want to miss out on the next generation of your entire business.”
Aside from code-breaking, quantum computers hold promise for solving difficult problems in a variety of fields, including materials science, mathematics, physics and artificial intelligence, Pan said.
Alibaba declined to disclose financial details of the new lab.