/Is China winning the quantum race? (via Qpute.com)

Is China winning the quantum race? (via Qpute.com)

But here’s one area where the Trump FY21 budget does include generous research funding: “industries of the future” like “artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information sciences (QIS), 5G/advanced communications, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing.”

The proposed budget earmarks nearly half a billion dollars for quantum technology, including $25 million to build a quantum Internet connecting 17 national labs. Of course, the final budget numbers and priorities will differ significantly, given the many months ahead in the federal budget approval process. But this part of the budget proposal says a great deal about the administration’s priorities.

How did a seemingly obscure field like quantum computing and communications — exploiting the mysteries of quantum physics to do things that are impossible for digital devices and networks today — become a budget priority? There’s a simple reason: The Trump administration believes quantum research is necessary for national security.

The U.S. fears falling behind China

The Trump administration, like previous ones, has prioritized funding for research they believe will help the national interest. U.S. government investment in science and technology — from interchangeable parts to the Internet — has long been the foundation of America’s economic and military might.

Policymakers have also weighed in. To U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the “consequences of mastering quantum computing … are no less significant than those faced by the scientists who lit up the New Mexico sky with the detonation at the Trinity test site 72 years ago.” Glenn S. Gerstell, general counsel of the National Security Agency, writes that a quantum “decryption ability could render the military capabilities of the loser almost irrelevant and its economy overturned.”

But China’s not winning this race

Many of the current fears of Chinese dominance and the quantum threat rely on mistaken assumptions. China has made progress in quantum communications, rather than quantum computing. These are very different technologies. Indeed, the reason China is so interested in quantum networks is because it is paranoid about its vulnerability to U.S. cyber operations.

The United States, by contrast, is undoubtedly the leader in quantum computing. In September 2019, scientists at Google and the University of California, Santa Barbara, achieved a milestone known as “quantum supremacy.” Their experimental quantum machine, known as Sycamore, ran an algorithm much faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer could simulate.

Research in quantum networking is also quite advanced in both North America and Europe. It is notable that when a Chinese foundation created a prize to recognize excellence in quantum science, only one of the 12 recipients was Chinese.

The quantum espionage threat is exaggerated

Yes, quantum technologies may sound like something from science fiction — unbreakable forms of communication and computers that can perform spooky action at a distance. It is easy to jumble different quantum technologies together as if they presented a common problem — and a common threat to national security. And it’s easy to talk in broad terms about their potential, while overlooking the limitations.

Some commentators claim that quantum computers will make digital computers obsolete. Yet quantum algorithms only provide improvements for limited range of problems. A quantum computer powerful enough to break Internet encryption will need 20 million quantum bits (qubits) — Sycamore only had 53 qubits. It may take decades to clear all the engineering hurdles. By then, most organizations will have implemented post-quantum cryptography, which provides security against both classical and quantum computers.

Therefore, as my research suggests, it will still be possible to collect and protect secrets after the quantum information revolution. Political advantage depends on organizational policy and behavior, not just advanced technology. Smart policy can compensate for technological weaknesses, and poor policy can squander technological advantages.

While the national security implications of quantum technology are exaggerated, there are still many promising scientific applications. The ability to perform mathematical operations more efficiently might improve drug discovery and artificial intelligence. While quantum computing will not save us from covid-19, it might aid in research to prevent future pandemics.

Jon R. Lindsay is an assistant professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @jonrlindsay.

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