Quantum Computing: How to Address the National Security Risk

Arthur Herman and Idalia Friedson on the coming revolution

Telescope at the quantum communication ground station in Xinglong, north China's Hebei Province, China, November 25, 2016 (Xinhua/Jin Liwang via Getty Images
Telescope at the quantum communication ground station in Xinglong, north China's Hebei Province, China, November 25, 2016 (Xinhua/Jin Liwang via Getty Images

View PDF


Imagine a computer solving the mathematical problems that today’s fastest supercomputers can’t begin to unlock, in less than a blink of an eye. Imagine a technology that can enable an observer to see through walls, or see into the darkest depths of the world’s oceans. Imagine a technology that can build essentially unhackable global networks, while rendering an antagonist’s most secret data instantly transparent.

All these are characteristics of quantum computers and quantum technology, which will define the future of global information technology for decades, possibly centuries, to come. It represents a revolution as profound as any in modern history, and it’s one on which we stand at the brink, with all its promise—and its perils.

Arthur Herman, “Winning the Race in Quantum
Computing,” American Affairs, Summer 2018

p(firstLetter). In the 21st century, global supremacy will belong to the nation that controls the future of information technology (IT)—at the heart of which will be quantum technology.

Quantum computers will use the principles of quantum mechanics to operate on data exponentially faster than traditional computers—in ways that will far surpass the capabilities of even today’s fastest supercomputers.

For example, a quantum computer with 300 quantum bits (“qubits”) could conduct more calculations than there are atoms in the universe. The benefits of this accelerated calculating power will include earlier cancer detection, improvements in machine learning, better pharmaceutical drugs, and more.1

Unfortunately, such a computer could also render today’s public encryption systems obsolete in less than the blink of any eye.

Such a system would pose a threat to national security because it could open the encrypted secrets of countries, companies, and individuals and cripple critical infrastructure and financial systems. A foreign competitor with the edge in quantum computing could also threaten America’s economic security while reaping the many economic benefits of the quantum era.

Therefore, America is involved in another contest that is just as vital to national security, the economy-- and even the future of liberal democracy--as the race to build the atomic bomb in World War II: the race to build the first fully operational quantum computer, which experts believe will play out in the next 10-20 years.

In October 2017, Hudson Institute hosted a conference bringing together, perhaps for the first time, members of the two halves of the international quantum community: quantum computing experts and experts in quantum-safe cybersecurity. The two groups discussed in a public forum how to frame the future dialogue between policymakers and lawmakers, on the one hand, and the makers of quantum technology, on the other, about what America must do to prepare for the quantum revolution.

That dialogue is now underway, as lawmakers are becoming aware that the quantum computing revolution will have not only a profound scientific and economic impact, but national security consequences as well. At the October conference, Hudson senior fellow Arthur Herman compared the need for a National Quantum Initiative with the Manhattan Project, which ensured that the U.S. would possess the first atomic bomb. Five months later, Morgen Wright, senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government, drew the same comparison. As with the Manhattan Project, Wright wrote in The Hill, for the quantum project, “All hands have to be on deck. Money has to be spent. Research has to be done. And access to our research and scientific facilities has to be denied to the Chinese, Russians, and other adversarial countries.”2

This concerted effort must begin now because America’s leading competitors, including Russia and the Republic of China, are also working urgently to develop such a quantum computer and are positioning themselves to dominate the quantum era.

The purpose of this report is two-fold.

First, this report explains the significance of quantum technology and analyzes why it poses a national opportunity as well as a potential threat.

Second, this report sets out the principles around which a national quantum strategy can be built. As will be explained, more resources are needed to win the quantum computing race than just increased federal funding or federal oversight. For example, America’s private sector has the most essential role to play in preserving and promoting American IT leadership in the quantum era. Meanwhile, government should help to set priorities, standards, and goals for emerging cybersecurity measures while leaving the private sector to do what it does best: innovate and make an emerging technology as efficient and cost-effective as possible in the shortest amount of time.

In any case, it would be a mistake to assume that America’s decades-long dominance of IT will automatically translates into dominance in the quantum era. But with the right strategy and the proper commitment of resources, including funding, the United States can retain its global edge in IT and lead the world’s other democracies forward into the quantum era.