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Risking Apocalypse? Quantum Computers and the US Power Grid
Aerial view of residential buildings at night. (AedalPerspective Image/Getty Images)
Aerial view of residential buildings at night. (AedalPerspective Image/Getty Images)

Risking Apocalypse? Quantum Computers and the US Power Grid

Arthur Herman & Alexander Butler

Millions without power; stores and banks shut down; vital services running on emergency generators, if at all; lines of hapless people awaiting food and water. The experience that the state of Texas underwent during February 2021 is only a preview of what we would all face should the United States’ ever-vulnerable energy grid be subject to a major cyberattack.

For years, experts have been warning us of the national power grid’s vulnerability to attacks by such malicious actors as Russia, China, and Iran. A major task force within the US Department of Energy—the North American Energy Resiliency Model (NAERM)—has been tasked with determining how best to protect our energy grid from damage caused by not only natural disasters but also terrorism and cyber assaults. NAERM’s purview, however, encompasses only existing, conventional cyber threats and does not extend to quantum computer attacks, whose effects would be far more protracted and far worse than those of a conventional cyberattack. Indeed, the “smarter” a grid is, that is, the greater the extent to which it relies on computer supervision and control, the more vulnerable it would be to such an attack.

The shutdown resulting from an attack by a future quantum computer, with its unprecedented power to easily decrypt existing encryption systems, could be the most catastrophic disaster our country has ever experienced. Using data supplied by global econometrics firm Oxford Economics, researchers at Hudson Institute’s Quantum Alliance Initiative are conducting a quantitative study designed to model the impact of a hypothetical future quantum cyberattack on the US power grid, and preliminary results indicate that protection of our power networks needs to be an urgent national priority.

The study’s preliminary results offer important clues as to the areas on which policymakers should focus, not only to secure our power and energy grid from a large-scale quantum computer attack but also, in the event this were to be unsuccessful, to mitigate such an attack’s impact on our infrastructure, both in terms of economic and national security.

As Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn wrote in his 1962 book Thinking About the Unthinkable, “Even the most utopian of today’s visionaries will have to concede that the mere existence of modern technology involves a risk to civilization that would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago.” Today, we must once again consider the unthinkable, not the nuclear apocalypse that haunted Kahn and his generation in the 1950s and 1960s but a quantum apocalypse that, if not as physically and permanently destructive as a nuclear attack, could cause catastrophic harm to our economy and society unless proper steps are taken now to mitigate such an attack’s attendant risk.

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