The U.S. government is making major investments in quantum technology. In 2020, the Department of Energy invested $625 million into multidisciplinary Quantum Information Science Research Centers in support of the National Quantum Initiative. The Biden administration is supporting legislation that would spend over $100 billion to advance emerging technologies, including quantum computing.
There’s a good reason for these investments. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center has identified quantum computing as one of the strategic technology sectors in which the U.S. faces increasing challenges from a growing list of countries. All are in a race for leadership because of the military and economic benefits these technologies promise as well as the cybersecurity risks quantum poses.
Quantum development and commercialization is already underway, and increasing investments and intensive collaboration among government, private enterprise and academic institutions are already showing significant results. The implications of this new technology are profound for all government and public sectors. Government and industry recognize that quantum computing is no longer a theoretical, lab-based technology, but one which provides useful business value today, even in advance of “quantum advantage.”
Quantum computers solve problems differently than classical computers. They leverage the properties of quantum states such as superposition, entanglement and interference to simulate real-world scenarios in an n-dimensional space. They also perform computations with greater data capacity, increased accuracy of results and the promise of faster processing speeds.
Where classical computing provides only one “best” answer, quantum computers yield multiple diverse results. For governments, this means the ability to tackle their most complex problems by defining the impact among different scenarios and choosing the solution best optimized for each situation. Being able to solve complex problems with better results in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the resources provides immense opportunities to countries that can harness the power of quantum computing. However, make no mistake, quantum computing will not eliminate the need for classical computing. In fact, the hybrid model of solving problems with both quantum and classical approaches will yield better answers in certain use cases than either one computing technology could do on its own.
Quantum computing is a completely different paradigm for both hardware and software. Developing quantum programs using current SDKs requires significant quantum expertise and lengthy timeframes to create the program, algorithms and low-level coding necessary to have the software work with a single hardware platform. This means that only a small elite workforce has the skills to leverage quantum computers, so the government with the most developed workforce and more end-user oriented technologies will ultimately dominate the field of quantum computing. To overcome workforce limitations and democratize access to these powerful systems, software companies are now developing ready-to-run quantum software that subject matter experts with no quantum experience can use right now.
Cybersecurity: The quantum space race
The U.S. and other governments currently rely on mathematically-based two-key asymmetric encryption techniques. These codes are almost impossible to break with classical computers, but quantum computers will be able to break them quickly and easily, due to their factoring speed and ability to rapidly search through unsorted data. This puts the nation’s most critical secrets — and in fact, all digital infrastructures — at risk. The only way to get ahead of the problem is by leveraging the same powerful quantum technology to develop new cybersecurity solutions.
Most countries are already working to create quantum decryption capabilities that will uncover the most sensitive data of their adversaries. The U.S. government classifies any national security information that threatens the nation or its allies for 25 years or more. If quantum decryption helps our adversaries access our most sensitive information, it could have a devastating impact on national security.
U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are eagerly investing in quantum technologies as they look to make the U.S. government more secure and better protected against threats to operations and security. For example, quantum technology will enable the optimized movement of troops for scheduled and on-demand global needs, as well as quantum radar that is undetectable and doesn’t expose itself to attack.
Quantum computing is ideally suited for government-related complex optimization problems. These include creating optimized routes and schedules for snowplows, garbage pickup, emergency response and public transportation. Quantum computing can also enable major operations, such as helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency to efficiently allocate emergency resources to affected communities in the wake of a natural disaster or even predict with greater certainty where a disaster will occur to prevent its effects versus reactively responding to them.
Quantum computing is expected to greatly impact many scientific disciplines, including:
- Drug R&D and clinical trials. New drug development is already underway using artificial intelligence and computer simulations that can accurately visualize and predict effects on patients. When combined with quantum computing, development and clinical trials can be faster and cheaper without requiring trials on human volunteers.
- Environmental research and CO2 c Quantum computing’s ability to simulate chemical reactions is expected to surpass that of supercomputers. This will advance research in both carbon sequestration (removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and direct air capture (capturing carbon dioxide in the air for removal or producing carbon-neutral fuel).
The U.S. cannot afford to fall behind its partners and adversaries in the exploration of new technologies that have widespread implications for government operations. But technology development alone will not be sufficient to take advantage of new capabilities nor overcome its threat. The nation must ensure that it develops a workforce capable of meeting these new challenges. Additionally, these new technologies must be adopted and integrated into government operations much more quickly. The commercial sector isn’t waiting for quantum computing to reach advantage, but the government still treats it as more of a curious research endeavor than a technology that should begin shifting to implementation.
Artificial intelligence has been around for decades, but only saw government implementation within the past 10 years due to the explosion of data and advanced computing capabilities. If we adopt this same “wait and see” attitude with quantum computing, I fear that we won’t know that we lost the race to quantum until it is too late. Recent government investment in quantum technologies is a great start, but we need to encourage the executive agencies to start on their path to quantum today. This is not a time when we can adopt the attitude of “being first to be second.” We must be first and to remain in that position.