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The White House Is Getting America Ready For Its Quantum Leap

Arthur Herman

While the rest of the country has been transfixed by the Brett Kavanagh confirmation drama, the White House was quietly but steadily taking major steps to secure America’s high-tech future.

The first was the release of the National Cybersecurity Strategy last week, which I discussed in a previous column. This week came the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science (QIS), released by a subcommittee of the Committee on Science for the National Science and Technology Council. This document is a big win for Jacob Taylor, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s point man on all things quantum, and a major win for America.

At last we have a plan that brings real government-level coordination for advancing the technology that will result in a major revolution in how we live in the 21st century.

Let’s remember that while a traditional computer has to sequentially explore the potential solutions to a mathematical problem, a quantum system is able to look at every potential solution simultaneously and generate answers—not just the single “best” but nearly ten thousand close alternatives as well—in less than a second.

This means myriad problems that are currently insoluble for digital computers, even the fastest supercomputers, will be solved by a future quantum computer. This promises to lead to major breakthroughs in areas like medicine, material science, and climate science. Through quantum sensing scientists will even be able to perform the equivalent of seeing through steel walls and probing the deepest depths of the sea.

This is why the committee’s twenty-page report asserts that leading the way in QIS is a matter of national security but also economic security, as quantum technology fuels for a new high-tech industrial revolution for the U.S. and for the rest of the world.

In the document’s own words, the plan focuses “on a science-first approach” that aims to identify and solve the big challenges America will face in embracing this transformative technology, while also building “a quantum-smart and diverse workforce to meet the needs of a growing field” and encouraging “industry engagement, providing appropriate mechanisms for public-private partnerships.”

At the same time, the plan calls on government to “provide the key infrastructure and support needed to realize the scientific and technological opportunities” that will be coming in the quantum revolution.

There’s lots to applaud in this plan. There’s the recognition that winning the race for a quantum computer will require strong international cooperation, including with our closest allies—a cause to which our Quantum Alliance Initiative here at the Hudson Institute has been committed since our founding.

As noted, the plan also recognizes the need to develop a strong quantum workforce to sustain American leadership in the quantum arena for the long-term future. “Growing an American quantum-smart workforce with expertise in a broad range of physical information, and engineering sciences is crucial for assuring sustained progress in QIS,” it correctly argues. Therefore, the plan mandates government agencies like the National Science Foundation to focus on expanding programs that will further that goal, adding, “universities should be encouraged to address the workforce development needs by adding tenured or tenure-track faculty within the interdisciplinary themes associated with QIS and consider Quantum Science and Engineering as a discipline for future concentration.”

There’s also one other issue that this plan doesn’t directly address. Unfortunately, among the complicated puzzles future quantum computers will be able to solve are the math-based algorithms that protect our public encryption systems.

Experts agree that the new possibilities arising from quantum computing will create a mortal threat to today’s IT security. An algorithm formulated by mathematician Peter Shor in 1994 demonstrated that quantum computers will be able to factor large numbers far more efficiently than classical computers. Making large-number factoring all but impossible is the foundation for most of today’s encryption standards.

The coming years will witness the advent of a quantum computer powerful enough to break the encryption techniques currently used billions of times every day.

I agree with the “science-first” approach to quantum information science is necessary if we are going to win the quantum race. But it’s not sufficient by itself. We also need to focus a broad-based national effort on finding ways to develop post-quantum cryptographic methods; and to use quantum technology itself to render our most vital public and private data and networks essentially unhackable.

These are already underway in our leading government security agencies, including at the National Security Agency and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology. There are also important efforts underway by private companies in the U.S. and around the world, including by allies like Canada and Australia. Now we need a major national effort for securing critical data and networks before a quantum computer powerful enough to decrypt current systems is realized.

So, here’s three cheers for the National Strategic Overview on quantum-and three cheers for the National Strategic Overview on quantum cybersecurity that still needs to be done.

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