At Last America Is Moving On Quantum

A year ago many of us were calling on the U.S. to step up and deal with the growing quantum computing challenge

A year ago many of us were calling on the U.S. to step up and deal with the growing quantum computing challenge and to commit serious resources to winning the quantum computing race, on which the fate of information technology in the 21st century will depend.

Finally, things are finally starting to move on Capitol Hill and at the Trump White House.

We still have a long way to go, and China is still outspending us in the quantum sector by nearly 30 to 1. But a House bill and a White House proposal are signs that America’s political establishment is starting to get it: This is one high-tech race America can’t afford to lose.

Quantum processors work with quantum bits, or qubits, that exist as both a one and a zero at the same time, potentially providing significantly more computing power than current digital technology. That dramatically increased computing power also poses a threat to the modern cryptography system—which is a major reason why we want the first large-scale quantum computer to be in friendly hands, rather than unfriendly ones.

America IT giants like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, and Google have been working on this technology for a number of years now. But until now the United States has been the only major country that hasn’t developed a comprehensive strategy for winning the quantum computing race.

The National Quantum Initiative Act (H.R. 6227) finally addresses that issue. It proposes devoting $1.275 billion over five years to support research and development efforts in quantum technology, in a coordinated effort led by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Standards and Technology (which is working on algorithms that can help to protect against future quantum intrusion). That’s a substantial increase over the $200 million Washington has been spending annually, spread over several government agencies including the NSA and armed services.

In addition, H.R. 6227 would create focused science and technology centers that will each concentrate on particular aspects of quantum technology. It also establishes a National Quantum Coordination Office inside the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to help coordinate research between agencies, and to promote private commercialization of federal research breakthroughs.

As if on cue, the White House has announced that its Office of Science and Technology Policy will charter a Quantum Information Science (QIS) subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council to help dovetail quantum technology initiatives across the federal government. In addition, Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation have introduced their own companion quantum legislation.

All well and good, and Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the Quantum Industry Coalition, which represents a range of companies involved in quantum technology, and the authors of the National Quantum Initiative Action Plan who pressed the agenda forward, for helping to get our legislators and officials focused on this issue.

But there’s still plenty left to be done.

For one thing, even with this funding increase, the .U.S government’s effort is still dwarfed by China’s efforts. Its government announced last September it would build the world’s largest quantum research facility in Hefei province. The $10 billion, 4-million-square-foot national laboratory is slated to be completed around March 2020 and is dedicated to making major advances in quantum technology, including computers, sensors, and cryptography.

Most importantly, China understands that a quantum technology strategy can’t just be limited to quantum computing; China leads the way in setting up unhackable quantum communication networks. The fact is the same technology—quantum—that can overthrow virtually every public encryption system that exists, can also be employed to develop secure networks that resist intrusion not just by a future quantum computer, but by today’s computer hackers.

China’s first major milestone in this area was the 2016 launch of its Micius quantum satellite, which can anchor a secure ground-to-space quantum communications network. China has also made key advances in developing a similarly unhackable 2,000-kilometer quantum communications network from Shanghai to Beijing.

This is the direction in which a U.S. quantum strategy needs to head. While Congress’s increased attention to quantum computing is admirable and overdue, we also need to focus energy and resources on quantum cybersecurity measures that will protect our data and networks on the day when the Chinese (and others) have their own quantum computers.

While our National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working to develop and certify standards for quantum-resistant algorithms—the first line of defense against a quantum hack—NIST’s tentative timeline for this project and implementation stretches out beyond 2034—which will be too late to deal with a code-breaking quantum computer that may be among us in a decade.

Yet this is where the most urgent national security threat ultimately lies.

So are the current government efforts underway in developing a national quantum strategy a big step forward? Absolutely. Do they complete the mission? Not yet.