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  • Quantum Computing and National Security

    The full impact of conventional digital computers on governments, economies, and national security interests could not have been foreseen when the first machines appeared in labs 75 years ago. In much the same way, quantum computing's full ramifications are now difficult to predict. However, the struggle to dominate this emerging technology is already attracting private and public resources around the world. Why is this competition so important? What threats and opportunities will it create? And how can the United States ensure that it wins? We’ll show you. 

    The full impact of conventional digital computers on governments, economies, and national security interests could not have been foreseen when the first machines appeared in labs 75 years ago. In much the same way, quantum computing's full ramifications are difficult to predict. Why? Because quantum computing's capabilities will be similarly evolutionary and synergistic, creating new tools that will work together to help us realize currently unimaginable possibilities. 

    Therefore, quantum computing should be considered a science with exceptional general potential for advancing national interests, even if the substance of that potential remains largely undefined. For this reason, many nations are striving to develop quantum ecosystems, which will enable them to deliver a great wave of technological advancement for their societies, economies, and governments.

    Even now, at this early stage of development, we recognize that some potential applications of quantum computers pose obvious and immediate risks for national security, particularly as they relate to encryption technologies. At this moment, the highest levels of encryption used by governments around the world for their most sensitive information and processes are functionally impenetrable by conventional computers. For example, today’s fastest supercomputers would take more than a billion years to crack the world's most advanced encryption systems. However, based on what is already known, the right quantum computer, once developed, could crack the same encryption schemes in seconds.

    Conceivably, if a government built one such quantum computer before alternative encryption arrangements could be found by other governments, the quantum-enabled government could access other nations' information systems in a catastrophic "quantum surprise attack." The specter of a quantum surprise, or various shades of it, gives new urgency to seeking quantum superiority, beyond the more general competitive benefits of controlling one of the world's most advanced computing technologies.

    Aside from quantum encryption's considerable risks and benefits, quantum computing promises other important national security applications which are worth mentioning. The U.S. military is already looking into methods of using "quantum sensing" to provide more precise navigation capabilities to its forces, especially in applications where GPS technology is not reliable. Similar technologies could be used to better detect the activities of stealth aircraft as well as a foreign adversary’s use of chemical or biological agents. With ever more sophisticated means of hiding such operations, quantum-enabled technologies could provide a decisive strategic edge to American forces or to their adversaries. And, as with all the potential national security benefits of quantum computing, speed in development is crucial to reaping the competitive benefits of quantum technology

    Notably, in the race toward quantum superiority, there is no clear finish line. Progress is therefore difficult to measure. And because quantum computing has such diverse potential forms and applications, various entities are taking an equally diverse range of approaches to advancing the field. Unlike the comparatively clear, singular goals of creating a nuclear bomb in the 1940s or reaching the moon in the 1960s, the task before scientists working to gain an edge in quantum computing is diffuse enough to require cultivating a full ecosystem of independent actors. As with many of the issues at the nexus of national security and technology in the U.S., private companies such as Google and IBM are at the forefront of quantum developments, with universities playing a key role in fundamental research. And while absolute failure in the form of experiencing a quantum surprise attack from an adversary represents one clear negative outcome, the full spectrum of outcomes is difficult to precisely discern.

    Until recently, progress in terms of quantum computers themselves was primarily measured in terms of the number of "coherent qubits" that a quantum computer could use. Qubits are extremely sensitive instruments whose complex dynamics are highly susceptible to minute disturbances, which prematurely collapse the delicate value of the qubit into a one or zero, resulting in erroneous calculations. As such, the number of coherent qubits that are stable enough to operate reliably represents a key benchmark for the progress of quantum computers.

    Nonetheless, several other factors are also highly important in determining a quantum computer's relative power, such as

    - the number of operations a qubit can complete before losing its quantum coherence,
    - how the qubits are interconnected, and
    - their “circuit compiler efficiency.”

    Accordingly, IBM has created a "quantum value" metric that draws these factors into a single number, now accepted by many in the field as the most accurate measure of a quantum computer's overall power.

    A multilayered approach to assessing a quantum computer power is necessary partly due to the many distinctive ways in which companies are attempting to build quantum computers.

    One major distinction between quantum computers concerns approaches to construction. The two leading approaches that appear to hold the most promise are adiabatic quantum computers and gate model quantum computers, which differ in their computational structures.

    Adiabatic quantum computers are easier to build but narrow in their functionality. Companies are building adiabatic quantum computers partly based on the belief that they will be important in developing more advanced, multifunction quantum computers.

    Gate model quantum computers, by contrast, are more complex and mimic the operational structure of conventional computers in hopes of developing a more general-purpose quantum computer.

    Beyond computational structure lies an equally important differentiator which relates to the varieties of qubits being used.

    Google, Intel, IBM, and Rigetti all use superconducting qubits, which require operating temperatures just above absolute zero and use magnetic coils to read and write data.

    Honeywell and IonQ lead in using trapped-ion qubits predicated on manipulating the ions of an isotope of ytterbium.

    Meanwhile, photonic qubits are favored by China's leading quantum developers and startups such as Xanadu and Psi Quantum. These use photon light particles to encode data.
     
    Today, the jury is still out as to which method of qubit construction will prove most effective, since each method has strengths and weaknesses in operating temperature, qubit stability, and scalability, among other challenges.

    Two key performance benchmarks that engineer strive to beat in the quantum race are often referred to as "quantum supremacy" and "quantum advantage." The definitions of these terms are contested (and the terms themselves are sometimes swapped or treated interchangeably), but they broadly refer to the point at which a quantum computer can outperform the capabilities of any conceivable conventional computers or the point at which quantum computers can perform real-world tasks which are impossible to perform on conventional computers.

    As we near these benchmarks, companies, scientists, and governments are all gearing up for a highly consequential period of exponential growth in quantum computing capabilities expected in the next few years. And we’re beginning to see signs that that era is near.

    Notably, Google announced having achieved quantum supremacy on October 23, 2019, (five weeks after an early leak of the achievement hit the press) using its Sycamore quantum computer to perform a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken the world's fastest computer (at the time) about 10,000 years. In December 2020, a quantum computer called Jiuzhang at China's University of Science and Technology purportedly performed a calculation 10 billion times faster than Google's Sycamore.

    While these purported achievements represent significant progress in quantum computing development, engineers elsewhere have contested both claims to quantum supremacy for many reasons, and both machines are still far from demonstrating applicability to a significant range of real-world problems.

    Similarly, though machines such as Honeywell's System HI quantum computers are already being used for commercial purposes, the race to address practical national security applications of quantum computers has barely begun. That said, companies, scientists and governments are all gearing up for a highly consequential period of exponential growth in quantum computers' capabilities in the next few years.

    In fact, over just the past two years, there has been a profusion of research on, and attention to, quantum computing development.

    Governments around the world have pledged an estimated $22.5 billion via large public funding projects devoted to quantum research and development in the coming years. The governments that have pledged one billion or more include India ($1 billion), the United Kingdom ($1.3 billion), the US ($1.3 billion), France ($2.2 billion), Germany ($3.1 billion), and China (with funding estimated at $10 billion). Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have also publicly dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to similar ends, while the European Quantum Flagship project has been granted $1.1 billion. These numbers reflect large-scale central government funding projects, but do not include smaller ad hoc government projects, which can add up. The U.S., for instance, has numerous ongoing projects that fall outside the nearly $1.3 billion pledged under the National Quantum Initiative.

    Nonetheless, the fact that China's governmental budget purportedly accounts for about 44 percent of total international public spending by national governments on one of the most consequential new technologies for national security interests should be of concern to the rest of the world. And although its Jiuzhang quantum computer has highly limited capabilities, its success suggests the country is making considerable progress in quantum development. Meanwhile, the country's universities and companies are steadily increasing their pace of patent filings in quantum technologies, having already doubled the total number of patents filed by the United States in the sector. In quantum communication and cryptography specifically, China's patent output dwarfs that of the U.S., and in 2018, China filed more quantum patents than did the U.S., Japan, Korea, and the EU combined.

    More importantly, China's ambitions are clear. As leading quantum scientist Jian-Wei Pan explained, "With modern information science, China has been a learner and a follower. ..Now, with quantum technology, if we “try our best” we can be one of the main players." But, as Elsa B. Kania and John K. Costello state in their 2018 report for the Center for a New American Security, the national security implications of a world in which China pulls ahead in quantum technology are frightening.

    This is not the only technology battle currently raging between the world’s geopolitical powerhouses. As explained in the July 2020 issue of Trends, the United States is firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to today’s struggle for dominance in Artificial Intelligence. China lacks the multifaceted resources needed to win the battle over AI, which is the technology which will dominate economic growth over the next 10-to-20 years.

    However, the competitive reality in the embryonic world of quantum computing is much less clear. And China's advances in quantum science have the potential to impact the future military and strategic balance, perhaps even leapfrogging the traditional leaders' military-technological advantages. Although it is difficult to predict the trajectories and timeframes for their realization, dual-use quantum technologies could "offset" key pillars of U.S. military power, potentially undermining critical technological advantages associated with today's information-centric warfare which underpins the U.S. model.

    Fortunately for the West, private companies are leading the way in quantum computing research and development. On the U.S. side, Google, Honeywell, Hughes Research, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, and a handful of quantum startups are at the forefront of much of the quantum computing revolution, often in partnership with American universities. Quantum specific venture capital funds such as Quantum Valley Investments and Quantum Wave have been pouring financial support into promising startups, some of which have ambitious goals of leapfrogging the major companies in the race to build advanced quantum computing capabilities. Furthermore, American allies such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom also boast many potentially high-impact startups in quantum computing.

    In China, tech giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent have been making gains in the field after initially being slow to break into quantum computing. And of course, Chinese startups, supported by government-backed VC firms, are also competitive.

    What’s the bottom line?

    Quantum computing holds tremendous potential for societies around the world. And it seems to be on the brink of immensely consequential breakthroughs. As the world enters a more overt race toward quantum superiority, the stakes are high in terms of national security, particularly in light of Beijing's concerted efforts to lead in this field. The United States can certainly win this crucial race, but it will require taking the competition seriously and building on America’s competitive advantages.

    Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

    First, given quantum development's rapid pace, any company could prove decisive in achieving game-changing breakthroughs in quantum computing. Generally speaking, the American private sector retains a considerable lead in quantum research and development compared with China and other competitive nations. America's strength in the quantum computing private sector has important advantages compared to China's more state-centric model, not least in its ability to raise considerable investment through private funds and the agility that comes with harnessing market forces.

    Second, the U.S. will win if it leverages its private sector's advantages to ensure it leads in terms of quantum computing's national security dimensions. Although America's robust private quantum sector can seize opportunities very quickly, that innovation is typically directed at commercial concerns rather than national security issues, whereas China's state-directed model always puts the service of state interests front-and-center. Furthermore, the multinational presence of innovative American companies can present security challenges; that’s a big problem since America's primary quantum competitor is notorious for intellectual property theft related to cutting-edge technologies. That means the so-called “black projects” associated with quantum computing need to enforce a one-way flow of information from the commercial to the national security projects. 

    Third, the American government and the more mature private firms will leverage methods and practices which the Chinese don’t possess. Although America’s governmental program for quantum computing is not yet at the same scale as China’s, the United States government has been involved in the sector for many years. The U.S. Department of Defense has been investing in quantum research for decades, and agencies such as the CIA, NASA, and the Department of Energy all have maintained partnerships with the private sector related to quantum technologies since the mid-2010s. In preparation for quantum-related cryptographic disruptions, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (or NIST) has also been working since 2016 to transition government systems to quantum-resistant security platforms as a way to prepare for quantum hacking risks. And in 2018, the U.S. government's focus on quantum computing as a strategic priority sharpened significantly after the Donald Trump administration issued its National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science, followed by the successful institution of the National Quantum Initiative (or NQI), which is providing $1,275,000,000 over five years to establish several quantum research centers to be directed by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and NIST. So far, the NQI has allocated funding to research centers, started work on the National Q-12 Education Partnership to encourage students' engagement with quantum, and convened a Quantum Economic Development Consortium of leading corporations and other stakeholders in quantum development. The NQI has also released its first Quantum Frontiers report, which draws together community input on America's quantum strategy, and has begun work on quantum coordination with like-minded partners, including signing a quantum cooperation agreement with Japan. Alongside these efforts, America's military services are continuing to fund and collaborate with quantum computing research entities in the pursuit of productive military applications for quantum computing. And,

    Fourth, to ensure that the United States wins the battle for quantum dominance the United will take the following six steps.

    Congress will mandate that the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence conduct annual joint assessments of America's quantum security status, including comprehensive reporting on all U.S. government initiatives in quantum computing or quantum science more generally. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees and Select Committees on Intelligence should also hold annual hearings on the state of the nation's quantum security.

    - The White House's National Quantum Coordination Office, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence will establish a process to regularly identify areas in which American superiority in quantum computing is non-negotiable and establish achievable plans to ensure consistent American advantage.

    - The NIST will determine the timeline for the rollout of the new quantum-resistant cryptography standars for use by the U. S. government. Although the program's tentative timeline extends beyond 2034, the NIST should do all in its power to accelerate government transition to more advanced cryptographic options to ensure that rapid advancements in quantum capabilities do not outpace governmental security.

    - The NQI and other relevant offices will continue to deepen their relationships with the private sector and academic researchers in quantum computing to help them understand the geo-political import of their activities and find areas for mutually beneficial collaboration.

    - The U.S. will become proactive in shoring up IP norms domestically and internationally, in light of China’s continued corporate espionage efforts. This means establishing stricter patent protections and more aggressive repercussions for domestic and international IP theft. And, 

    - The United States will help foster an international resolve to thwart China’s multi-faceted aggression. As Beijing's belligerence grows, the U.S. will be proactive in cooperating with like-minded nations on quantum computing to ensure the Chinese government does not achieve its goal of ruling the quantum roost. Quantum computing will be added to the alliance agenda of like-minded tech powerhouses, building on the success of initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence and the G7 in countering authoritarian influence in artificial intelligence and 5G. Given the recent explosion of government funding toward quantum development, well-structured collaboration among trusted partners-complemented with appropriate protections against IP theft from China could go far in shaping a more peaceful and prosperous quantum future.

    Reference:
    1. Heritage Foundation. February 5, 2019. Klon Kitchen. Quantum Science and National Security: A Primer for Policymakers.

    2. Google AI Blog. October 23, 2019. John Martinis and Sergio Boixo. Quantum Supremacy Using a Programmable Superconducting Processor.

    3. MIT Technology Review. January 3, 2019. Martin Giles. The US and China Are in a Quantum Arms Race That Will Transform Warfare.

    4. Forbes. November 23, 2019. Quantum Volume: A Yardstick to Measure the Performance of Quantum Computers.

    5. Forbes. April 15, 2020. Paul Smith-Goodson and Moor Insights and Strategy. Quantum Computing with Particles of Light: A $215 Million Gamble.

    6. IEEE Spectrum. March 5,2021. Charles Q. Choi. In the Race to Hundreds of Qubits, Photons May Have ‘Quantum Advantage.’

    7. Nature. October 23, 2019. Elizabeth Gibney. Hello Quantum World! Google Publishes Landmark Quantum Supremacy Claim.

    8. Xinhua. December 4, 2020. China Focus: Chinese Scientists Achieve Quantum Computational Advantage.

    9. Newsweek. December 14, 2020. Fred Guterl. As China Leads Quantum Computing Race, L.S. Spies Plan for a World with Fewer Secrets.

    10. VentureBeat. March 29, 2021. Michael Vizard. Honeywell Says Quantum Computers Will Outpace Standard Verification in ’18 to 24 Months.

    11. Nature. March 1, 2021. David Matthews. How to Get Started in Quantum Computing.

    12. Nikkei Asia. March 14, 2021. Akira Oikawa, Yuki Okoshi, and Yuki Misumi. China Emerges as Quantum Tech Leader While Biden Vows to Catch Up.

    13. Nextgov. December 21, 2020. Brandi Vincent. Two Years into the Government’s ‘National Quantum Initiative.’

    14. US Army. March 16, 2021. US Army DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs. Army, Air Force Fund Research to Support Multi-Domain Operations Superiority.

    15. SIGNAL. April 1, 2021. George I. Seffers. Prepare National Security Systems Now for Quantum Threats.