I predicted in December 2018 in this column, America Quantum Ready In 2020 that 2019 would be the year of America’s Quantum Leap. Certainly the development of quantum computers continued apace, but there were also some key events that year that demonstrated that quantum technology is here to stay and will decisively shape all our futures. They also demonstrate that this year America needs to get ready for the risks as well as the opportunities, when the full impact of that technology finally hits.
The first landmark came when Google reported that its quantum computer, dubbed Sycamore, had solved a mathematical calculation in 200 seconds that would take a supercomputer 10,000 years. It was the kind of breakthrough quantum scientists like to describe as “quantum supremacy.” Google’s quantum computer competitors immediately pounced on the announcement, asserting that Google’s claim was overblown. IBM argued that the world’s most powerful classical computer, the Summit OLCF-4 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, could have done the same calculation in 2.5 days—in other words, Sycamore would have solved the problem in only one thousandth of the time instead of 1 ½ trillionth.
Still, Google’s achievement shows that quantum computers are no longer science fiction, but reality: and that the development of a quantum computer capable of solving the complex mathematical problems that undergird the world’s public encryption systems—the most catastrophic threat to data and networks ever posed—will come even sooner than quantum skeptics like to pretend.
In fact, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai has been quoted at the World Economic Forum in Davos predicting that quantum computers will spell the end of standard encryption within five years. That means quantum readiness must now become a national priority along with US leadership in all sectors of quantum technology, from quantum computing to quantum sensing and hack-proof quantum communications.
The second landmark in 2019 was the authorization of funding for quantum information science under the National Quantum Initiative Act passed and signed by President Trump late in 2018. That $1.25 billion funding for programs at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has signaled that the United States is serious about keeping its leadership in the quantum sector. It also means that Washington realizes that without federal oversight and support, this 21st century version of the race to the moon won’t happen—or worse, will end up with China securing the quantum future, given the billions Beijing is currently pouring into quantum research and technology, alongside Chinese megacompanies like Ali Baba. So while China still trails the U.S. in the race for a large-scale quantum computer, thanks to companies like Google and IBM, in other sectors like quantum sensing, hack-proof quantum communications, and quantum-capable satellite technology; the Chinese are on a surge: while the Communist government’s principle of civilian-military fusion means the benefits of future breakthroughs will immediately flow to China’s military and intelligence services.
The need to stay abreast of developments in hack-proof quantum communications is what inspired the third landmark event of 2019, which happened here at the Hudson Institute’s Quantum Alliance Initiative. This was the convening of a consortium of companies, research labs, and universities from eight countries to develop global standards for quantum communication technology such as Quantum Random Number Generators (QRNG) and Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), which were presented to the International Telecommunications Union for final approval. The standards were proof of how far the U.S. can advance quantum technology, when it joins forces with other like-minded countries and allies.
As for how important it is to be able to push back on the quantum computer threat, especially from China, there was another landmark event in 2019—in some ways the scariest. A survey conducted by the technology company DigiCert of IT directors, IT security managers, and IT “generalists” for some 400 firms in US, Europe, and Japan found that while 55% saw quantum computing threat as “somewhat to extremely large” today and 71% as “somewhat to extremely large” in the future, only 35% had any budget for making their systems quantum-safe—even though 59% anticipated a “large to somewhat large” budget sometime in the future.
2019 has shown the dimensions of quantum-based technology, and the imminence of the threat. 2020 will have to be the year the U.S. government, and the private sector, get serious about making us all quantum safe before time runs out.
Read in Forbes