The United States needs better quantum science as a national policy

The potential advantages of quantum computing are tremendous. But also tremendous are the perils of not developing the new science, and allowing other nations to take the lead in this critical area. Some lawmakers agree, which is why the House of Representatives unanimously approved The National Quantum Initiative Act (H.R. 6227) in September, sending it to The Senate for further consideration.

The bill directs the President to implement a National Quantum Initiative Program to, among other things, establish the goals and priorities for a 10-year plan to accelerate the development of quantum information science and technology applications.

Leaders in quantum computing say that military, clandestine, and civilian areas of government could be affected if quantum science becomes an afterthought to the current administration. Many are beginning to consider advances in quantum science to be as important as previous national contests such as the arms or space race.

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The council on foreign relations has labeled quantum science as “a race the United States can’t lose.” Similarly, Representative Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdCongressional scorecard finds federal agencies improving on IT Juan Williams: Nowhere to go for black Republicans Texas lawmakers introduce legislation aimed at helping border counties identify missing migrants MORE (R-Texas) wrote an article for Wired magazine highlighting some of the potential ramifications of losing the quantum war. If the government and private sectors fail to adopt security measures before quantum computing becomes a more common occurrence within the information technology field, most American institutions will be at risk, the article states.

Quantum computers pose a significant risk to encrypted devices and communications. Due to many current encryption methods being based on a complex series of math equations, encryption becomes more vulnerable to quantum computers which can process up to 100 million times faster than a traditional computer. As such, even quantum computer prototypes have the ability to invalidate many forms of cybersecurity. That is why H.R. 6227 is so important, because it shows that government is willing and able to take the lead on critical quantum computing development.

Quantum science, according to the bill, would be advanced by three government agencies, NIST, The National Science Foundation, and The Department of Energy. NIST would study quantum science and convene a workshop to discuss the development of a quantum information science and technology industry. The National Science Foundation would carry out research and educational programs on quantum science engineering and award grants for the establishment of Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education. Finally, The Department of Energy (DOE), which runs tremendously detailed simulations and would be a big beneficiary of quantum computing advancements, would carry out research programs on quantum information science.

Industry’s helping hand

While the current administration has been reluctant to fully fund quantum research, there is hope within the private sector. A strong industry has sprung up around this problem, as outlined by Rep. Hurd, and today there are defenses and security measures available that can protect data from quantum-powered hacking. One of the most promising is Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) which provides an instantaneous measurement of photons upon reception of the key to see if an eavesdropper intercepted any of the information it is protecting. According to Wired Magazine, QKD has seen heavy use within financial institutions in Europe, especially Switzerland. However, QKD has yet to become commonplace within the United States.

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Google and IBM are also leading the charge in the private sector in developing quantum computers. IBM has a program called IBM Q that focuses on education about the subject of quantum computers. In the educational material, IBM mentions that they are developing their quantum devices using open source framework programming software. Google is doing their part and has promised to have “quantum supremacy” by the end of the year thanks to a new chip that has been developed. The chip has speeds up to 72 qubits, which beats the previous record of 50 qubits held by IBM. In November, Google called on NASA to help establish a baseline for supremacy and prove that Google had attained it.

Although Google will likely tout its “quantum supremacy” should it ever actually achieve it, that won’t make much of difference in cybersecurity. Supremacy basically means that a quantum computer is faster than every traditional system on Earth. But supercomputers can’t crack RSA 2048 encryption even if you give them a few billion years to try, and Google’s quantum supremacy machine won’t be able to either. The real threat, which someone will develop one day, is a quantum prime machine which can slice through any of today’s encryption in just a few seconds.

Unification is critical for quantum advancement

The private sector is working hard to close the gaps that the government’s inaction is creating, but it may not be enough to advance the United States ahead of Russia, China and others whose programs amount to a national, government-supported effort. Also, there is every chance that developments made by private companies would remain owned by those investing millions in their creation. Private companies will undoubtedly seek to monetize their gains to recoup costs, and that may or may not be to the complete benefit of the government or the nation as a whole.

Only by leading the way can the government expect to influence the development of quantum science, and ensure that the resulting technologies are put to good use for the benefit of the entire nation. But we have to get there first. Allowing other countries to take the lead in developing a technology that could so dramatically shape the future puts our economy, our military and our national influence in the world at serious risk.

John Prisco is the CEO and President of Quantum Xchange, provider of the first Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) dark fiber network in the U.S.