China's challenge to US quantum competitiveness

China's challenge to US quantum competitiveness
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China aspires to lead in quantum information science, and Congress is starting to recognize the importance of preserving U.S. competitiveness in this domain. The proposed Quantum Computing Research Act and the National Quantum Initiative Act reflect a vital recognition of the importance of long-term investments and public-private partnerships in advancing the development of quantum technologies.

At times, the growing enthusiasm about quantum computing can overtake the reality of its development — which will be not a race but a marathon across decades to come, extending far beyond the symbolic (and often overhyped) milestone of “quantum supremacy.” However, it is clear that this “second quantum revolution” could prove transformative in the long term. Although Chinese research in quantum computing still lags behind that of top players in the U.S., the ambition and potential that China could take the lead in the course of this marathon should not be discounted.   

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While going on the offensive to advance U.S. innovation, policymakers must also recognize the risks of ‘quantum surprise.’ China has already launched national megaprojects in quantum computing and communications, creating a National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science and dedicating billions to research and development. Chinese companies, including Baidu and Alibaba, have established their own initiatives in quantum computing, attracting top researchers to their teams. Alibaba alone plans to invest $15 billion into disruptive technologies in the years to come.

 

The U.S. should strive to be at the forefront of quantum computing but must also recognize the risks of its realization. There is inherent uncertainty in estimates of the timeframe for “Q-day,” the time at which a quantum computer capable of breaking prevalent encryption is developed, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen openly or perhaps in secret. At that point, any systems not protected by post-quantum or quantum-resistant cryptography could be vulnerable—and all encrypted information and communications that had been collected and stored previously could be decrypted, perhaps revealing years worth of sensitive material.

Is the U.S. prepared for a national transition to a new regime of cryptography that is resistant to the future threat of quantum computing? China seems to be ready.

China has constructed and is expanding a national quantum communications infrastructure. These networks are already in use to protect sensitive military, government, and commercial communications against today’s security threats and those future risks of ‘wait and see’ collection. China’s quantum satellite, Micius, the world’s first, will become part of a larger constellation of quantum satellites, including future micro- and nano- satellites, that will enable quantum key distribution to scale to greater distances.

China’s national agenda for quantum cryptography and communications could enable an information and intelligence advantage. The 2013 leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which allegedly revealed the extent of China’s vulnerability to U.S. intelligence capabilities, appeared to act as a catalyst for the prioritization of quantum technologies, even at the level of Xi Jinping himself. In fact, this incident was so impactful that Snowden has been characterized in Chinese media as one of two individuals most responsible for China’s trajectory in quantum science since, along with leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei, who himself has discussed those leaks as motivation to accelerate his own research.

Although Chinese leaders may be seeking perfect and absolute security, these quantum networks won’t be truly unhackable, but rather could remain vulnerable to certain types of spoofing and interference. However, China could succeed in partly "offsetting," or at least complicating, the efficacy of U.S. cyber espionage and signals intelligence capabilities, as sensitive information is shifted over to these new, perhaps more secure systems.

Could China "go dark"? That question is worth raising, but remains difficult to answer, given the technical uncertainties. The balance between offense and defense in intelligence will continue to evolve as these technologies advance, but this will remain a critical domain of peacetime and wartime competition, in which such a going dark could increase levels of uncertainty and exacerbate risks of misperception.

Regardless, China does appear to be in the process of "future proofing" itself against the future risks of quantum computing, while enhancing its information security.

The U.S. must take a similarly forward-looking approach to mitigate the risks to our own cyber security, which today continues to be bedeviled by known and dated vulnerabilities.

The U.S. government must start to evaluate the costs, timeframe, and technical challenges associated with a military, government, and even private sector, transition from today’s prevalent forms of encryption to a new regime resistant to quantum computing, relative to potential "Q-Days." NIST’s exploration of options for quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms should be a priority and, if necessary, further resourced and accelerated.

Going forward, the U.S. must also recognize the strategic challenge of China’s emergence as a powerhouse in quantum information science. China aspires to lead future advances in quantum technologies, and the U.S. should actively pursue disruption, while also recognizing that we are at risk of disruption.

Elsa Kania is an adjunct fellow with the nonprofit Center for a New American Security's Technology and National Security Program.