America Risks Falling Behind in Quantum Arms Race

As China invests billions in quantum technology, scientists say U.S. policymakers must increase their own funding or risk an unprecedented cybersecurity threat.

In this Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, a computer display shows a live visualization of online phishing and fraudulent phone calls across China during the 4th China Internet Security Conference in Beijing.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File
Brendan Bordelon
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Bordelon
Oct. 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

What if a top geopolitical rival to the United States were able to crack America’s top-secret encrypted communications at the push of a button? Worse, what if this adversary could revisit the encrypted gibberish it plucked years previously from U.S. communication networks, rapidly untangling the complex math problems shielding American secrets?

Scientists say those questions aren’t hypotheticals, but the inevitable outcomes of fast-approaching advances in quantum computing—emerging technology that harnesses the baffling ability of subatomic particles to exist in two places at once, allowing computers to execute billions of calculations simultaneously. Encryption that would take classical computers millions of years to crack could conceivably be broken by quantum computers in a matter of moments. And while America has long been the leader in quantum technology, experts say an all-out funding and research-coordination campaign by China threatens to eclipse U.S. efforts. If America were to fall behind, the security implications would be catastrophic.

“You want to know what it’s going to be like if someone we don’t particularly get along with acquires the first large quantum computer? Imagine a thousand Equifaxes happening at once,” said Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Hackers today hack one system—trial and error—then move on to the next one. This is going to be all at once.”

To prevent that calamity, Herman said the United States will require a “Manhattan Project-style funding focus,” giving research institutions a clear mandate and a steady stream of funding. And though the applications for quantum computing—for good or for ill—are almost limitless, Herman believes policymakers are more likely to sit up and pay attention when faced with the technology’s frightening ability to nuke encryption and upend existing cybersecurity infrastructure.

“The one area in which the federal effort is most crucial at this point isn’t building a quantum computer; it’s the cryptography,” Herman said. “That’s the key buy-in right now.”

A truly formidable quantum computer is likely a decade away at the earliest, and the massive amount of resources required to build and operate one will restrict their use to nation-states for the foreseeable future. But experts are alarmed by the rapid uptick in investments being made by U.S. adversaries—particularly China. Earlier this month, China announced construction of a $10 billion quantum-computing center in Hefei, by far the largest and best-funded facility of its kind. In September, China broke ground on a 2,000-kilometer quantum-communications link between Beijing and Shanghai, and in June it successfully used a quantum satellite to send hack-proof messages to ground stations.

Scientists from the U.S. government, private industry, and academia all point to China’s breakneck pace as evidence that the U.S. must redouble its efforts in quantum research. “If we don’t make the investments in both the underlying skills and also the technology of people learning how to use these systems, we will—from an American-competitiveness point of view—fall behind,” Scott Crowder, the vice president and chief technology officer for quantum computing at IBM, told lawmakers at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on Tuesday. “I can’t give you an exact date, but the trajectory is insufficient.”

Crowder and other quantum experts on Tuesday asked lawmakers to consider crafting legislation to create a “national quantum initiative,” coordinating partnerships between industry and the academy on practical quantum applications while granting a modest (by Chinese standards) $500 million to open several new quantum-research labs and testing facilities in the United States.

But so far the federal government is actually primed to cut spending on quantum. Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski, the ranking member on the House Science subcommittee on research and technology, noted that the Trump administration’s budget cuts quantum information science at the National Institute of Standards and Technology by 6.6 percent. “Obviously, the federal government is not going to go any length, spend any amount of money,” said Lipinski. “But we certainly need to do something.”

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher disagreed, noting that cuts often spur research institutions to drop less-than-promising projects. “The fact that there have been responsible cuts to various programs is something that will actually, I think, make our scientific community more effective instead of less effective,” Rohrabacher said.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, the chair of the research and technology panel, stressed that Tuesday’s hearing was designed to bring lawmakers up to speed on a dizzyingly complex issue. But she also left the door open for legislation. “With China nipping at our heels, I think additional investment certainly would be warranted,” Comstock told National Journal. “And I would support [that], and look forward to talking more to the experts.”

Still, Comstock wouldn’t say when a bill supporting increased quantum investment could be introduced. And when it comes to national security, scientists say the point of no return may be fast approaching. Lily Chen, the head of NIST’s cryptographic-technology group, explained during a Hudson Institute event last week that quantum computers able to crack top-tier encryption could come online as early as 2026.

But the technology would also allow countries like China to decrypt U.S. communications intercepted years earlier, giving the Chinese a window into past operations. That means U.S. spy agencies will need to harden their communications against quantum decryption efforts long before that technology actually comes online. “If we require five-year-backward secrecy, we certainly need to start standardization now,” Chen said.

Other experts believe there’s even less time to prepare. “Don’t underestimate the speed with which these deadlines can suddenly loom up,” said Herman, citing this summer’s sudden acceleration of North Korea’s missile program. “If we want to get this going in order to make us safe a decade from now, we need a national quantum initiative standing up yesterday.”

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