The US government has slapped sanctions on several Chinese quantum computing organizations, barring any American companies from doing business with them unless expressly permitted.
As PC Magazine reported, these eight companies have been added to the US Department of Commerce's very normal-sounding "Entity List," for their work helping the Chinese government advance military applications for quantum computing.
For those unfamiliar, quantum computing is as far-out as it sounds. The idea is to use quantum states to store and transfer information, using quantum bits known as "qubits" instead of conventional bits. Researchers hope that quantum computers will one day be able to solve extraordinarily complex problems that today's supercomputers can't crack — a concept that, while it's not quite here yet, remains extremely sought after by governments that want its capabilities first.
China's been bragging about its quantum computing capabilities for a few years now. While it's not the only country mentioned in the most recent updates to Commerce's Entity List — 20 additional companies from Japan, Singapore, Russia, and Pakistan also made the cut — its inclusion represents yet another inflection point in the increasingly-volatile technological cold war between the US and China.
After the sanctions were announced, China responded by claiming the US "uses the catch-all concept of national security and abuses state power to suppress and restrict Chinese enterprises in all possible means," Reuters reports. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry also warned that the country may take countermeasures to defend its companies.
While the public isn't currently privy to the details of the actual or potential military functions of quantum computing, we know the broad strokes: it could conceivably be, as Commerce noted in its latest sanctions announcement, used for "counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications, and the ability to break encryption or develop unbreakable encryption."
When the government puts it that way, it all sounds very scary, but we mustn't forget that generally, when the US sanctions Chinese tech, it's often the same stuff we're doing here. Publicly information suggests that China is making huge strides in the quantum arms race, but there's no doubt that if the US and American tech giants are indeed behind, they're spending billions to catch up.