Multiple governments around the world have secretly agreed to restrict the export of quantum computers

A photo of a quantum computer hanging from the ceiling of a clean room laboratory
(Image credit: John D via Getty Images)

It seems that "secret international discussions" have led to an export ban for quantum computers of a certain level of power, despite scientists around the world being unable to actually explain why.

Quantum computers might seem to be a work of science fiction, but they do exist and are used by academic institutions and computing businesses around the world. Even though they're very limited in capability right now, it hasn't stopped multiple governments from secretly agreeing to limit the export of them to other countries, leaving computer scientists puzzled over the logic behind the decision.

That's according to New Scientist and it contacted the UK government for an explanation for export restriction, only to be told that the request was denied on the grounds of security. You might think that this is a very sensible decision because quantum computers are supposed to be able to crack any encryption in the blink of an eye.

However, while that's theoretically possible, quantum computers right now are too basic and error-prone to be able to do this. In fact, such machines are so far off achieving this kind of computing zenith that there's no logical reason to limit their export.

Of course, anything to do with computing, be it quantum, AI, or encryption, typically invokes a heavy-handed approach by authorities, especially those who worry about other states getting ground on them in the world of technology.

News that the UK had put export restrictions in place came to light last month, with quantum computers sporting more than 34 qubits and a specifically low enough error rate being the main ones blocked. What's particularly unusual about this latest news is that other countries have followed suit, creating export controls that match the UK's word-for-word, specification-for-specification.

Such countries include France, Spain, and the Netherlands, which might lead one to think that this is an EU thing. However, Canada has also done the same so it's clearly not limited to Europe. New Scientist contacted the French embassy, where a spokesperson claimed that the controls were set on the basis of "multilateral negotiations conducted over several years under the Wassenaar Arrangement."

That's an agreement to control the sales of arms and goods that have military applications, so it raises the question as to why some governments think quantum computers meet the criteria for the arrangement. Milan Godin, an adviser to the EU, told New Scientist that quantum computers are a type of technology that has the potential to crack encryption and the potential to improve military strategies, and this could be the reason behind the move.

The upshot of this is that if you can afford to buy a quantum computer, then it looks like you're only going to get your hands on an extremely rubbish one. For academic institutions that have set aside funds to continue research in quantum computing, this will probably mean such endeavours will have to be abandoned.

If you were hoping to see a quantum computer run a spaceship and make you a cup of Earl Grey tea (hot) in your lifetime, it looks like you're going to be disappointed.


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Nick Evanson
Hardware Writer

Nick, gaming, and computers all first met in 1981, with the love affair starting on a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and a book on ZX Basic. He ended up becoming a physics and IT teacher, but by the late 1990s decided it was time to cut his teeth writing for a long defunct UK tech site. He went on to do the same at Madonion, helping to write the help files for 3DMark and PCMark. After a short stint working at, Nick joined Futuremark (MadOnion rebranded) full-time, as editor-in-chief for its gaming and hardware section, YouGamers. After the site shutdown, he became an engineering and computing lecturer for many years, but missed the writing bug. Cue four years at and over 100 long articles on anything and everything. He freely admits to being far too obsessed with GPUs and open world grindy RPGs, but who isn't these days?