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Read Before Pontificating on Quantum Technology – War on the Rocks

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Read Before Pontificating on Quantum Technology - War on the Rocks

Quantum technology — and quantum computing more specifically — has become quite the popular topic in national security circles. The extraordinary level of interest emerges from the potential impacts of quantum computers on information security and general issues of international strategic technological advantage. While academic strength in quantum computing research is globally distributed, U.S. industry maintains substantive international leadership. The most significant technical demonstration of state-of-the-art quantum computing was reported by Google this year, and the first cloud-based quantum-as-a-service offerings are available from IBM and Rigetti, with forthcoming services announced by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.

With these developments, quantum computing has been identified as a possible target technology for export controls as well as foreign-investment review in emerging tech companies. And the new U.S. National Quantum Initiative is framed around strategic competition and even directly addresses the notion of a technological “race” with China.

And so now, you — Madam, Mister, or Doctor National Security Professional — need to understand and speak intelligently about how this technology impacts your portfolio. Where should you begin and how? What are the important lessons to embrace and pitfalls to avoid as you begin your educational journey?

It is easy to find yourself going down the wrong path; there are many new analysts offering “expert” advice on the technology underlying quantum computing. Many of them merit your skepticism. A combination of technical complexity and competitive media positioning has led to a wide variety of pervasive misconceptions in the field. Watching these flawed and false narratives take off in the national security world that I have worked in for years — at DARPA, working with the intelligence community, and now at my own company — has been frustrating. And so, as someone with 20 years of experience designing, building, and optimizing quantum computing hardware, I aim to offer friendly advice and insights that aren’t readily available otherwise.

Learn the Basics

Following many years in which information was found only in specialist technical journals, high-quality educational resources supporting new entrants to the field are finally emerging. I offer some of the better ones below. Turn to them in order to gain proficiency in the underlying technology at either a contextual or technical level, no matter what level of technical expertise you have (or lack).

Q-CTRL — the organization I founded and lead — has produced an introductory video series for those who have limited background knowledge and are seeking to orient themselves in the field. This is a great place to start if you’ve encountered various keywords in quantum computing such as “qubit”, “NISQ”, or “quantum advantage” and now want to understand their meaning and context at a high level.

Quantum Computing for the Very Curious is an excellent online “e-book” introducing quantum computing in an accessible but technical fashion. It’s prepared by Michael Nielsen, one of the most recognized textbook authors in the field, and covers material from qubits to universal quantum computing.

The online Qiskit textbook from IBM provides a detailed technical overview of this material, with a focus on programming quantum computers for future quantum developers.

Various supporting tools exist to help build intuition for quantum computing, including BLACK OPAL from my organization, the IBM Quantum Experience, and the Quantum User Interface from the University of Melbourne.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s xPRO offers an online course in quantum computing built and taught by actual leading practitioners, such as Peter Shor, Will Oliver, and Isaac Chuang (not consultants, dabblers, or marketers).

Finally, if you’d like a broader overview of the intersection between quantum technology and national security, I wrote a primer on quantum technology for national security professionals with Richard Fontaine in these virtual pages.

Start with the History

Many in national security circles became familiar with quantum information and quantum technologies only in the last few years. Understanding the origins of U.S. government activity in the field is essential to evaluating the national security landscape around quantum computing today.

The history of the field is traced back to early intelligence community investments in open university research, following public announcements surrounding the development of Shor’s algorithm (an algorithm potentially enabling quantum computers to attack public key cryptosystems, named after Peter Shor). Since the late 1990s, the vast majority of participants in the international research field has been supported by competitive programs sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Office and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (and its predecessor organizations, the Advanced Research and Development Activity and the Disruptive Technology Office). Ultimately, this targeted, highly competitive funding has been foundational to the development of the international quantum computing research community.. Very broadly, this technical leadership (as measured by recognizable research programs and/or publicly acknowledged funding) has come from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada. Much more recently, China has risen independently as it has made quantum information matter of national priority. Singapore and Russia have also made strategic investments in quantum technology.

What should we take from this history? First, openness, collaboration, and international engagement with allied nations have been central to the success we have seen in building this technological discipline. This success, a global public good, is the result of American international leadership. And it therefore risks being undermined by aggressive actions to curtail international collaboration, especially as so much exploratory science remains to be undertaken.  Emerging nationalist sentiment seeking to limit international support for research among allies – or to add new export control regimes on immature technologies are regressive.  Second, the U.S. defense and intelligence communities have played a critical and irreplaceable role in the field. Today’s U.S. National Quantum Initiative is seeking to establish expanded research activity through programs administered by new organizations, including the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy through the national labs. The foundational leadership from within the Department of Defense and the intelligence community places the United States at a strategic advantage in knowledge and internal capability within government. Finally, aside from long-term research and development efforts at industrial organizations such as IBM, large-scale industry-led programs have only emerged since about 2013 at Microsoft, Google, and other tech giants, often grown by “acquiring” academic research teams. Similarly, the boom in quantum technology startups — largely derived from academic programs — has been growing for about five years. Notably, all of the relevant industrial research leaders and efforts have had substantial overlap with Army Research Office and IARPA programs. This makes clear both the connectivity of personnel running these programs with research leaders, and demonstrates how these government funding initiatives have been instrumental in seeding today’s quantum industry. 

True Technical Expertise Is Out There, So Reach Out

Maybe you’ve been asked to write a memo on something at the intersection of national security and quantum technology. Or maybe you’re an international security scholar looking to research and write about the implications of the second quantum revolution. Why not collaborate with, or at least reach out to, someone with technical expertise? Quantum computing is not an easy field to understand, even for sharp minds with a deep understanding of other technical topics. So, look (and ask) before you leap.

Most contemporary leaders in the field have built their entire careers in quantum computing and have come up through advanced Ph.D.-level training programs at major universities around the world. Looking across the growing quantum computing startup ecosystem, almost every chief executive officer, chief technology officer, or other sort of senior executive has come from a senior academic appointment. Similarly, the broad U.S. industrial sector in quantum computing is heavily populated with seasoned experts in the field. Many of us have worked with the U.S. defense and the intelligence communities for years. And this cross-sector collaboration means there are a number of practitioner-experts working in government. Substantive expertise exists within various organizations, including the National Security Agency’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences, the Sandia National Laboratories, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (having generated multiple Nobel laureates in quantum physics), the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and the Army Research Office.

Unfortunately, growth in the field has led to a commensurate growth in the number of consultants and analysts claiming to be experts in quantum computing. Most of these voices are amateur observers, although there are a small number of formally trained experts who have crossed into analytical positions in defense contracting, management consulting, or the like. Third-party business analysts can bring valuable insights into the shape of emerging commercial markets or opportunities for quantum computing to contribute in novel sectors. Use caution when looking to such consultants for expert technical advice on the utility or functionality of quantum computers. As a general matter, beware the LinkedIn profile claiming expertise in quantum computing without evidence!

How to See Through the Hype

The level of true potential for quantum technology in national security and more broadly is profound and fully justifies major investments such as the U.S. National Quantum Initiative. However, this level of promise has inevitably led to hype in the popular media, company press releases, venture-capital newsletters, and (international) government program announcements. It is essential that in making an informed assessment you seek the truth beyond the hype.

The most important leading message is that quantum technology is a ‘deep-tech’ field and represents a long-term strategic play; the benefits may be enormous in the national security space, but timescales to delivery remain measured in years and decade. We have recently seen an acceleration of commercial and public-sector interest and activity — and there is no doubt that this is furthering progress — but there has not been an obvious fundamental change in the pace of technological development.  Quantum computing has been described erroneously as “just engineering” at this stage, where all we need to do to realize quantum advantage for useful problems is execute. While there is much room to incorporate lessons from the engineering community, creativity and serendipity remain essential.

Expert leaders in our community feel confident that within five to 10 years we may realize quantum advantage for a problem of general commercial interest. This would certainly be a profound demonstration, but it is supported by the (consistent) rate of progress since the early 2000s and the relatively small scale of machine we believe is needed to achieve this goal. By contrast, codebreaking using Shor’s algorithm remains a multi-decadal play because the scale of the system required is likely to be gigantic (thousands of high-performing logical qubits, each capable of performing billions of operations).

This highlights another essential piece of advice for quantum novices: caveat emptor. Question the messenger when reading media reports about technological breakthroughs. In many cases commercial and nationalist motives have clouded the landscape of media reporting on the true state of progress in the field. This is especially true at the intersection of quantum computing and national security for obvious reasons. For instance, in their excellent report, Elsa B. Kania and John Costello explain that quantum technology has clearly become a matter of national priority in China, but that it has become difficult to discern real progress from strategic hyperbole in state media. Unfortunately, the same can be true for corporate media releases closer to home. Many journalists have repeated press-release pronouncements without applying the skepticism the topic demands. National security professionals might then use such articles as a source, leaving an important debate ill-served. It is therefore important that such professionals seek validation of claims via primary-source information. This is of utmost importance in understanding the intersection between national security and quantum technology, as misunderstandings of the capabilities of the underlying technology can completely change the associated security implications.

As an example of such a negative impact on national security assessments, the combination of a rise in corporate and nationalist marketing and credulous media reporting has led to many misleading lay descriptions of how quantum technology operates in the security space. The research area perhaps most subject to misrepresentation is quantum communications, which has become an area of major Chinese investment and clear technical leadership. Quantum communications uses concepts of quantum physics (such as the destructive nature of measurement) in order to offer information security. In particular, these systems are theoretically “provably secure” — a term that has a specific quantitative technical definition relating to the probability of eavesdropping in a nominally successful round of communication. This suggestive nomenclature has led to the broad use of popular terms such as “unhackable” communications or “unbreakable quantum security.” But these claims are specious. People have translated a technical definition (“provably secure”) into an accessible but incorrect lay term (“unhackable” or “unbreakable”) when, in fact, there is an entire subfield dedicated to cryptographic attacks on quantum communications systems. None of this means that advances in quantum communications wouldn’t be enormously valuable, but it does reveal the shallow nature of some aspects of the popular narrative.

On a final and lighter note, it’s my pleasure to inform you that “quantum radar” is not likely to be an imminent threat to stealth technology as is sometimes claimed by Chinese media. There is global research interest in the application of “quantum illumination” to suppress certain kinds of technical noise in radar systems. It is possible that China has built functional prototypes and could in principle be far ahead of the United States and its allies, but there is no evidence that this has made China’s radars able to detect stealthy or low-observable aircraft in ways they could not before. Public-domain, state-of-the art research from a Canadian team also publicly claiming they hope to defeat stealth technology does not support such claims.  Demonstrated benefits show approximately two times improvement in imaging quality using quantum illumination at one-meter imaging distance in a laboratory.  This is far from field-deployable, and a factor of two times improvement in imaging – even if it did carry over to realistic distances and conditions – does not necessarily render low-observable aircraft vulnerable.   Nonetheless, media reporting on this topic has been breathless, even within national security publications. Unfortunately, the primary source material which could be used to raise doubts about claims surrounding quantum radar is highly technical and inaccessible to most analysts.  While highly specific, this example illustrates how a lack of understanding of the technical material coupled with nationalistic media releases and credulous journalists can produce deleterious strategic assessments.

The advice I offer here is broad and aims to help national security professionals seeking to build a knowledge base in quantum technology. This is an essential undertaking for anyone seeking to engage meaningfully with this emerging and high-impact field.

Michael J. Biercuk is a professor of quantum physics and quantum technology at the University of Sydney and a chief investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems. In 2017, he founded Q-CTRL, a quantum technology company for which he serves as CEO.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Nancy Wong, University of Chicago)

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