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How the federal government can prepare for the next era of computing

Technology connects our world, and the development of critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing is essential for protecting the U.S. against foreign adversaries.

Today, we are on the cusp of a quantum computing revolution that will transform the way we tackle some of our greatest global challenges. But if we don’t act quickly to safeguard our data, this moment could be followed by a security nightmare in which hackers take advantage of this technology to break through current encryption algorithms and compromise important government and private sector data. 

Quantum computing is already proving to be a breakthrough technology that applies quantum physics in an effort to solve computational problems more efficiently than classical computers can even attempt. However, it isn’t just a faster way of doing what today’s computers do — it is a fundamentally different approach that provides answers to the problems that classical computing couldn’t reach. As more industries discover quantum’s potential, experts in both the government and private sector can use this technology to achieve breakthroughs in their respective fields, from high-energy physics, to accelerating the discovery of novel materials and chemistries that can offer new solutions to the climate crisis, to life-saving biomedical research. 

As we brace ourselves for an exciting new era of computing, the federal government is preparing for our quantum future by building a robust ecosystem that encourages collaboration with businesses and academia, restores American competitiveness, and ensures our data remains “quantum-safe.” That’s because when quantum computers finally reach their full potential, the systems we use today to safeguard sensitive data will not be secure. Here at home and across the globe, governments are already concerned that bad actors are positioning themselves to take advantage of these next-generation computers to penetrate the strongest digital walls. This is because they’re using a “harvest now, hack later” approach — stealing information now and then using future quantum computers for decryption. 

As the U.S. works to advance quantum research and development, we also need to ensure sensitive data is protected against the threat of future quantum hacking. This means that the government and anyone else responsible for securing critical data or digital infrastructure that must be kept for the long-term will need to take the steps today to make themselves quantum-safe before it’s too late.

In 2022, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the first quantum-safe cryptography protocol for standardization for cybersecurity in the quantum computing era. Three of the four chosen algorithms – to be published as standards in 2024 – were developed by IBM in collaboration with a number of industry and academic partners. 

IBM brings decades of experience and groundbreaking research to the quantum computing industry and has worked with NIST to define new quantum-safe cryptography standards since 2016. Because of our expertise in both cryptography and quantum computing — and our role in developing these new quantum safe standards — we’ve started working with organizations across telecommunications, finance, retail, and more for the transition to quantum-safe cryptography. 

However, the process of deploying new quantum-safe standards is just getting started, and it will take even longer for the wider industry to adopt and implement these solutions. With President Biden recently signing the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act into law, it’s imperative that federal agencies work quickly to prepare our digital infrastructure for post-quantum cryptography and protect our national security. 

In addition to implementing quantum-safe solutions to safeguard our data, governments must foster a collaborative framework with academia, national laboratories, and industry partners to strengthen our competitive advantage in quantum innovation. In 2018, the National Quantum Initiative authorized $1.25 billion of federal support for U.S. quantum efforts, which paired with private investments from companies like IBM, strengthened U.S. footing to remain the global leader in quantum innovation. Five years later, these types of public investments now lag behind countries like China as the worldwide quantum computing market experiences exponential growth and is forecasted to reach $8.6 billion by 2027

Luckily, last year’s passage of the CHIPS and Science Act promised substantial investments into emerging technologies including AI and quantum computing. To capitalize on this renewed focus on innovation, federal agencies, researchers, academics, and industry must come together to revitalize our national quantum strategy through funding R&D and building a robust technology and corresponding supply chain. These types of investments in quantum computing are critical to both our economic and national security. 

We don’t know the exact time when it’ll be possible to breach today’s security protocols. However, the good news is that quantum-safe cryptography is already here, and we have the resources to implement these new standards and ensure our nation is more than prepared for quantum’s next-gen computing. But time is of the essence — and we must get quantum-safe now.

Darío Gil is senior vice president and director of research at IBM.

Tags cybersecurity quantum computing

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