Wall Street Journal

The Computer That Could Rule the World

Arthur Herman on the Race to Build a Quantum Computer

Microwave apparatus used in NIST quantum computing experiments (National Institute of Standards and Technology)
Microwave apparatus used in NIST quantum computing experiments (National Institute of Standards and Technology)

During World War II the federal government launched the Manhattan Project to ensure the U.S. would possess the first atomic bomb. Seventy-five years later, America is in another contest just as vital to national security, the economy and even the future of liberal democracy. It’s the race to build the first fully operational quantum computer.

America’s leading adversaries are working urgently to develop such a computer, which uses the principles of quantum mechanics to operate on data exponentially faster than traditional computers. Such a system theoretically would have enough computing power to open the encrypted secrets of every country, company and person on the planet. It would also enable a foreign creator to end America’s dominance of the information-technology industry and the global financial system.

How does quantum computing work? In the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, electrons and photons can be in two states at once. All current computers process data in a linear sequence of one and zeros. Every bit, the smallest unit of data, has to be either a zero or a one. But a quantum bit, or “qubit,” can be a zero and a one at the same time, and do two computations at once. Add more qubits, and the computing power grows exponentially. This will allow quantum computers of the future to solve problems thousands of times as fast as today’s fastest supercomputer.

This poses a problem for most encryption systems, because they are based on math problems that would take a conventional computer centuries to solve. The encryption that protects credit-card information and bank accounts, for instance, relies on two keys. One is the “private key,” which consists of two large prime numbers only known to the bank. The “public key” sits in cyberspace and is the product of multiplying together the two “private” primes to create a semiprime. The only way a hacker could access encrypted credit card or bank information would be by factorizing or breaking down the large “public key”—often 600 digits or longer—back to the correct two numbers of the “private key.” This Herculean task simply takes too long for current computers.

A future quantum computer will be able to decrypt such systems almost instantaneously. Even Blockchain will not be able to withstand the first quantum attack if it relies on two-key encryption architecture, which protects nearly all digital information today. To understand the scale of the threat, imagine a thousand Equifax breaches happening at once.

As a September article in the journal Nature noted: “Many commonly used cryptosystems will be completely broken once large quantum computers exist.” Most quantum experts believe that such a breakthrough may only be a decade away. If quantum computers will hold the key to the global future, the U.S. needs to secure that key.

Scientists already know that quantum computing is possible. The problem now is engineering a system that takes full advantage of its potential. Since subatomic particles are inherently unstable, assembling enough qubits to do calculations takes persistence, time and resources. Quantum computers with 10 qubits already exist. A quantum computer capable of solving problems that would stump a classical computer is close at hand. Fifty qubits will mark the threshold of quantum supremacy.

Other countries understand that. While most of the work on quantum computing in the U.S. is being done by companies like Google and Microsoft , the European Union has made quantum research a flagship project over the next 10 years and is committed to investing nearly €1 billion in the effort. Australia, the U.K. and Russia have entered the quantum race, too.

But the real national leader in quantum research investment is China. This summer it launched the first satellite capable of transmitting quantum data. It’s building the world’s largest quantum research facility to develop a quantum computer specifically for code-breaking and supporting its armed forces, with quantum navigation systems for stealth submarines. Beijing is investing around $10 billion in the facility, which is to be finished in 2½ years.

Today the U.S. government spends only $200 million a year on quantum research of all kinds, spread haphazardly over a variety of agencies—from the National Security Agency to the Energy Department.

While IBM recently set a new benchmark with its 17-qubit processor, and Google insists it will reach the 50-qubit threshold before the end of this year, China is steadily advancing toward a 40-qubit prototype—and remains determined to reach “quantum supremacy.” At the same time, countries will need to revamp their encryption systems to keep up with the new quantum reality.

The U.S. can achieve both goals through a new Manhattan Project. Call it the National Quantum Initiative. Like its atomic predecessor, the new program should marshal federal government money, the efficiencies of private industry, and the intellectual capital of the nation’s laboratories and universities, while keeping everyone focused on the essential mission: winning the quantum race.

The Manhattan Project cost some $30 billion in today’s dollars. In comparison, the National Photonics Initiative has called for an additional $500 million of federal funding over five years to help the U.S. secure its grip on quantum supremacy.

Recognizing this, Congress held its first hearings on a national initiative for quantum computing on Oct. 24. Congressional leaders should now pass a bill funding a National Quantum Initiative.

Equally important is to make sure that America’s financial system, critical infrastructure and national-security agencies are fully quantum resistant. Companies and labs are currently developing algorithms and tamper-proof encryption based on quantum technology. But without a concerted and coherent national effort, it will take years for government and industry to agree on the standards for quantum-safe replacements for today’s encryption methods, and to make sure they are deployed in time to prevent a quantum attack. In a world of quantum proliferation, the risks are too great to ignore.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has led the world in nuclear research, making this country stronger and safer. For three decades the U.S. has been the leader in information technology, which has made Americans more innovative and prosperous. The U.S. cannot afford to lose that leadership now—not when the future hangs in the quantum balance.