Japan needs to gain ground, shift toward practical application of technology

Worldwide attention is being focused on quantum technology such as quantum computers, which have performance far superior to that of supercomputers. Japan must not fall further behind other countries in the race to develop quantum technology.

The government has drawn up a new national strategy for quantum technology that includes the goal of developing the first Japan-made quantum computer by the end of this fiscal year by establishing research bases in four locations, including Tohoku University and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University.

In the future, the government plans to use the technology in a wide range of fields, including finance, medical care and transportation, and increase the number of users of quantum technology to 10 million in 2030. First of all, it is important to secure research personnel and accumulate technology developed in Japan.

By successfully using the principles of quantum mechanics, which deal with the submicroscopic world of atoms and electrons, calculations that would take many years with a conventional supercomputer can be completed in minutes.

The use of quantum technology in cryptography would make it impossible, in principle, to surreptitiously intercept information, leading to the creation of a robust communication system. The new national strategy states that quantum technology is “an important technology that could be at the core of the struggle for supremacy among nations” — which is probably no exaggeration.

Although it is undeniable that Japan has lagged behind in the field, this does not mean Japanese research capabilities are inferior. A researcher from the Tokyo Institute of Technology established a basic theory for a quantum computer in 1998. But it was a Canadian start-up that used the theory to commercialize a product.

In 1999, an NEC Corp. laboratory succeeded in developing the world’s first basic circuit for a quantum computer. In recent years, however, ambitious efforts by U.S. companies such as Google LLC and IBM Corp. have stood out.

Even when Japan has valuable technologies, the country has difficulty providing bold support and attracting private investment until other countries develop the technologies and recognize their value. Japan will not be able to stay ahead of the world if it simply follows overseas trends.

In order to catch up with the United States and China, which are rapidly developing technologies, there is an urgent need to create a framework involving the public and private sectors.

Quantum computing is a developing-stage technology, and it is difficult to foresee what systems will become the mainstream in the future. There may still be a chance for Japan to gain ground in the field.

In the United States, giant companies are advancing research and development rapidly by utilizing their abundant financial resources. Meanwhile, under its national strategy, China is focusing mainly on quantum communications using satellites.

Regarding quantum technology, the time required for basic research to lead to practical applications is said to be relatively short. The technology also has a wide range of applications. Japan must strengthen cooperation among national research institutes, universities and companies to develop the ability to compete with the rest of the world.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 22, 2022)