America Must Win the Battle for Quantum Supremacy
Imagine a key that could open any digital lock on protected information. Now imagine the consequences if this key fell into the hands of America’s greatest geopolitical opponent, China, who coincidentally is obtaining as much of America’s data as possible. The recent national security memorandum on quantum computing released by the Biden administration contains timely recommendations and actions that must be prioritized. It is non-negotiable that America devotes the necessary resources and manpower to achieving quantum supremacy as China is similarly motivated to get there first, an outcome that would be catastrophic for America’s national security.
The internet and the communication that takes place through it is insecure by default. The internet was not intended to be so widely available so its creators felt they could send information unencrypted, or in plaintext. As the internet became widespread, people realized that their data going back and forth would need to be protected from being accessed by unintended viewers. This is how encryption became so vital to everything from online shopping to military communication. Encryption algorithms rely on sophisticated math to avoid being cracked and allowing the information to be leaked. The algorithms currently in use would take many years to break with existing computing technology.
In its May 4th national security memorandum, the White House illustrates just how important it is that America develop viable quantum systems before its adversaries. Whichever nation is able to develop “a quantum computer of sufficient size and sophistication … could jeopardize civilian and military communications, undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure, and defeat security protocols for most Internet-based financial transactions.” This is no idle threat either. A 2019 study done on the ability of advanced quantum computers to break modern encryption says that such systems would only take eight hours to crack modern encryption systems.
Thankfully this nightmare scenario is far off, but if proper steps are not taken now then America risks falling behind. It is encouraging to read that the White House realizes the gravity of such a scenario. The memorandum establishes that the United States needs to be a leader in quantum information science (QIS) “through continued investment, partnerships, and a balanced approach to technology promotion and protection” and it must transition to “interoperable quantum resistant cryptography.”
The devil is always in the details with such statements. It is one thing to proclaim that America will lead the way and another to put in place policies that will achieve such a goal. The White House strategy includes “a coordinated, proactive approach to QIS research and development (R&D), an expansion of education and workforce programs, and a focus on developing and strengthening partnerships with industry, academic institutions, allies, and like-minded nations.” It is encouraging to see the parts of this strategy that focus on R&D and development of strong partnerships with the private sector. America leads other nations in innovation because its private sector is less shackled by burdensome regulation while capitalism allows the necessary resources to flow efficiently towards innovators. However, the strategy also includes workforce development programs which historically have been ineffective. Unfortunately, with the current administration and its singular focus on “equity”, these workforce training programs are ripe for abuse in a quest for a “diverse domestic workforce.”
China is on the move, aggressively pursuing a future in which they can render American telecommunications insecure and obsolete. Recent Chinese advancements in quantum computing has led them to claim to have an upper hand in quantum networking along with the top two spots on the list of most powerful quantum computers. Science historian Zuoyue Wang says that “The Chinese government is thinking about science technology very seriously, probably more than the U.S. administration”. China is also notoriously effective at stealing valuable intellectual property from America, allowing them to co-opt American progress without investing in costly R&D. China is also likely to prepare for a compromise in modern encryption by hoarding encrypted data to decrypt later.
America must invest in quantum computing technology to prevent China from reaching quantum supremacy first. If that were to happen, America would lose a significant amount of national security with its digital networks and data at constant risk of compromise. China is focused on the future, pouring money and manpower into its efforts to subvert American global hegemony. If the Biden administration is not focused on achieving such a goal, and instead gets distracted on cultural and political side shows, then we may be facing a future in which America is not secure on the internet.