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Waging War on Quantum
Digital network connections on a black background. (Getty Images)
Digital network connections on a black background. (Getty Images)

Waging War on Quantum

Arthur Herman

Quantum computing will never work. Keeping enough qubits stable long enough to do any significant calculating or processing, is a mathematical impossibility. The whole idea that one day quantum computers will discover new miracle drugs, or crack public encryption systems, is a mirage. Even worse, it’s a hoax.

That’s been the message from so-called quantum skeptics for a decade or more, including physicists like Gil Kalai of Hebrew University and Mikhail Dyakonov of the University of Montpellier—all in spite of the fact that quantum computers have continued to grow in sophistication and qubit power. Most experts now agree it’s not a question if a large-scale quantum will emerge that can break into public encryption systems using Shor’s algorithm, but when.

But earlier this month a group of offshore short sellers appropriately named Scorpion Capital used these dubious claims to attack and drive down the share price of the first quantum computer company to go public, Maryland-based IonQ. The danger is that investors and the public will assume from this vicious and misleading attack that today’s quantum industry runs entirely on hype rather than achievement—an assumption that could ultimately threaten our national security.

Certainly the federal government isn’t fooled. At almost the same time as Scorpion was trying to kill off IonQ, the White House released two executive orders regarding quantum technology. The first establishes a new Quantum Advisory Committee to oversee the next stage in the National Quantum Initiative passed in 2018, to further more advances in quantum information science including computing. The second, National Security Memorandum 10, follows a January memorandum we discussed in an earlier column. It sets a series of deadlines for government agencies to get their information systems ready for the day when the quantum computer threat will be real—a date cybersecurity experts told the Congressional Research Service could arrive between 2030 and 2040, if not sooner.

Nor are companies like IBM, Microsoft, or Google deterred in their billion-dollar investments in quantum, especially after Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore computer proved it could solve problems that would stump the fastest supercomputers. Nor are European governments or EU, or China, which is investing four times what the U.S. government is spending on quantum computing and hardening its communication networks against future quantum computer assault.

Meanwhile, our reports here at the Quantum Alliance Initiative have demonstrated what the significant costs would be when that day comes and our power grid and financial sectors aren’t ready. Those reports are a wake-up call to the private sector to integrate the standards for post-quantum cryptography (PQC) or quantum-resistant algorithms now being prepared by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), into their networks and encrypted data.

So ironically, it was in the middle of this flurry of activity on the quantum front, that quantum skeptics suddenly found a voice with Scorpion’s sting.

Now, the executives and scientists at IonQ are more than capable of defending themselves from the outrageous claims in Scorpion’s smear job (full disclosure: IonQ’s co-founder is a member of our QAI advisory board). One point I can refute here: their computer is no hoax. I visited the computer at University of Maryland more than three years ago and saw its unique technology in operation, using ionized sub-atomic particles instead of superconducting qubits like IBM, Microsoft, and the others. The irony is that this ion-trap method can actually reduce the “noise” level of decohering qubits, reducing the error rate that skeptics like Dyakonov and Kalai think make quantum computing “a mathematical impossibility.”

But those skeptics (whose articles are quoted in the Scorpion attack) ignore the fact that what makes quantum computing feasible now and in the future, is the interface with conventional computer systems for reading out and interpreting results. IonQ is just one of the firms partnering with conventional cyber companies for developing algorithms for quantum computers, and for providing access for users in the cloud.

In fact, quantum hybrid systems are making the qubit revolution something that’s happening now, not just a distant dream.

Still, the danger is that attacks like Scorpion that smear the entire quantum enterprise may spook investors. In the last few years the flood of venture capital dollars into the quantum sector has been extraordinary, some $3 billion in 2021 alone. That has enabled dozens of start-ups to push forward the quantum frontier. If those dollars dry up, we’ll see U.S. quantum industry start to lag behind and stall, while countries like China surge ahead.

Here’s the other danger. If companies and even governments become convinced that large-scale code breaking quantum computers are an impossibility or even “a hoax,” and decide they put off protecting data and networks using PQC or entanglement-based quantum cryptography that creates essentially hack-proof communication links, then the national security implications could be severe. Just how severe, our QAI reports give some idea.

No one is saying the Scorpion Capital short-sellers are in Chinese pay, or that skeptics like Dyakonov and Kalai are knowingly putting their countries at risk. But waging war on the U.S. quantum industry can have serious consequences, unless quantum companies and labs show that they are not intimidated, and reassure the public that the quantum future doesn’t rest on hype but significant achievements—achievements that will make our country and our world safer, stronger, and more confident about our future as a whole.

Read in Forbes

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