When people think about high-tech competition with China, they usually think about space. But while moon landings and Mars missions might capture the competitive imagination, there is an even bigger, but much less appreciated, tech race underway: quantum computing. This has major national security implications: a cyber attack powered by quantum computing against the United States could be worse by orders of magnitude than a conventional attack, leading to disruptions of the national power grid or trillions of dollars in losses to a single financial institution.
Quantum computers have the potential to break RSA encryption, the protocol that underlies almost all of today’s secure encoding of banking information, sensitive military secrets, and access to energy grids. Therefore, a cyber attack launched with a quantum computer would leave all systems reliant on RSA encryption today vulnerable, including AES-256 encryption used heavily by the U.S. military. To protect national security, the United States needs to continue making encryption protocols quantum-safe to defend against such attacks.
Unlike classical computers where information is encoded in individual bits that can be in either the ‘0’ or ‘1’ state, quantum computers encode information in mixtures of ‘0’ and ‘1’ states or qubits. Controlling multiple qubits to talk with one another generates entanglement, where information is now encoded in the interactions between qubits. This increases the possible number of encoded states exponentially, allowing for exponential speedups on certain computational tasks.
Decrypting sensitive information using current computational resources would take thousands of years, but would take less than a few days on a quantum computer. This means that a major cyber attack could be feasible on these machines because of their ability to easily decrypt information exponentially faster than their classical counterparts.
Like artificial intelligence and 5G communications, quantum sensing, computing, and communications are emerging technologies that will slowly dominate every aspect of our lives in the near future.
Quantum computers have great potential to save lives by cracking computational problems that would otherwise take the age of the universe to solve, such as the efficient design of new drugs and predicting more efficient catalysts for fertilizing. But if used nefariously by our adversaries, new types of cyber attacks could become more prevalent and ultimately compromise national security.
China’s strategy to quantum innovation focuses on public-private partnership and centering the technology as a national priority. Its “Made in China 2025” initiative has increased funding for enterprises like Alibaba and Origin Quantum in this domain and has subsidized billions of dollars of annual investments, including the development of a $1 billion quantum center in Hefei.
China’s commitment to investing in this technology is also reflected in its intellectual property laws. In 2021, a report showed that China filed a total of 3,000 patents in quantum technology, while the United States sits at 1,500, putting it at a competitive disadvantage.
The United States has the opportunity to become a global leader in quantum computing, but it will take significant work to get there. Drawing parallels to the Soviet-U.S. space race, the United States needs to ramp up private-public partnerships, focus on training a quantum workforce, and center its efforts on making this a national priority to be competitive with major players like China.
In the United States, public-private partnerships have a long record of accelerating innovation in the space domain. NASA’s contract with SpaceX to launch Crew Dragon spacecrafts has allowed the government to leverage the reusable rockets developed by SpaceX and provides added incentives for SpaceX to continue pursuing this technology. The United States clearly has the infrastructure in place to support innovation by working directly with private companies, and it needs to do this in the quantum domain.
The National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI) approved by Congress in 2018 was created to bolster U.S. competitiveness in quantum science and technology. A key thrust of this act was to promote a lively ecosystem, through government coordination with corporate players through the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-c), accelerators, and the creation of quantum centers at national labs. While this does create the synergy needed to kickstart important discussions on the priorities of the technology, it lacks the significant, sustained investments needed to translate scientific discoveries into usable quantum technologies.
Just as the Chinese government works directly on quantum centered projects with companies like Huawei and academic labs, the United States needs to use its successes in government-funded corporate projects in the space industry as a model for the quantum domain. This will first require expanding the budget of the NQI from the current $800 million to the billions of dollars currently being invested by China.
Next, the U.S. government needs to leverage its existing partnerships with industry through the QED-c to decide on specific allocations for contracted projects. Through contracted projects, the United States will be able to take the lead in guiding the direction of quantum innovation while leveraging the scalability of industrial foundries, computing resources, and tremendous talent.
Because of the long timescales of industrial R&D in quantum computing and communications, many companies in this arena have few sources of revenue in the near term. Government-contracted projects will have the added benefit of generating early revenue to incentive these companies to stay in the game for the long run.
A key roadblock that the United States faces in becoming the global leader in quantum tech is its talent shortage. Most quantum scientists and engineers in industry in the United States have PhDs with extensive training in narrow research areas such as condensed matter physics and quantum cryptography. Although their expertise is extremely valuable in guiding high-level decisions within a company—such as road mapping quantum computer architectures—much of the low-level design of these systems boils down to fundamentals in classical electrical engineering, computer science, and materials science.
China is already outpacing the United States in these areas at all levels of education. At the K-12 level, companies like Origin Quantum are spearheading efforts to teach the fundamentals of quantum engineering in primary schools. At the university level, China has introduced Quantum Information Science as a major for college students and expanded quantum graduate training.
At the professional level, China has introduced an Industry-Education Integration Promotion Association to equip experts in non-quantum fields with the minimum background to make a career pivot. Although the United States has adopted some of these approaches, notably with Harvard and the University of Chicago launching quantum engineering PhD programs, significantly more work needs to be done.
As a first step, companies can train ‘quantum aware’ scientists and engineers from classical disciplines to join the quantum workforce. For instance, microwave engineers have been central to the communications industry for over 80 years. But microwave engineering is also critical in developing the current superconducting based quantum computers used by IBM and Google. This provides a unique opportunity for classical microwave engineers to translate their skillset to innovate in the quantum domain, with a low barrier to entry.
Congress needs to do more to provide the resources to promote this type of career pivot. The NQI should increase outreach efforts to the larger science and engineering communities to raise awareness of the opportunities available in the quantum industry and provide supplementary workshops and online classes to support late career professionals in making a quantum transition.
The United States has the opportunity to achieve a new Sputnik moment. The potential costs to security and economic competitiveness of remaining on the sidelines far exceed the investments that the United States needs to make to reach its goal. The United States must urgently make quantum technology innovation a national priority and leverage the expansive resources and talent pool that it already has at its disposal.
Image: Quantum computing with binary code (via GettyImages).
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