More International Quantum Partnerships Likely As U.S. Stakes Claim In Field

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The U.S. is keen to get ahead in the global quantum race as national security and technological innovation intersect.

The State Department announced a new international partnership focused on the continued research and development of new quantum technologies as the U.S. works to solidify its global presence in the burgeoning field.

Announcing a new partnership with Sweden on Wednesday, the U.S. has now entered several bilateral agreements specifically focused on quantum tech development with various ally countries, including Japan, Australia, Finland and the U.K. 

“Taking into account that QIST [quantum information, science and technology] ecosystems will rely on close international connections and collaboration with partners, we intend to focus on cooperation in QIST as outlined in this vision for the mutual benefit of participating countries and continue to enhance scientific cooperation under our respective leaderships,” the State Department press release read. 

As the U.S.’s national security––and that of other nations’––becomes directly proportional to its technological infrastructure, more of these bilateral partnerships are likely to arrive, according to Quantum Economic Development Consortium Executive Director Celia Merzbacher. 

Merzbacher, a scientist who previously worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Nextgov that she is “quite sure” that the U.S. will be pursuing more partnerships to advance quantum technology development. 

“Those statements indicate that both sides see the other as having some strengths in this field, and wanting to partner because we don't own all the marbles right now,” she said. “We recognize that innovation is happening outside the U.S. and…vice versa. And so, we want to really kind of hold hands and figure out how to take advantage of our respective strengths, form stronger partnerships. It's a real statement.”

The U.S. maintains a competitive advantage in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, along with a strong tech market sector anchored by companies like Google, IBM and Facebook.

Yet other countries outpace the U.S. in direct state-granted funding in the quantum space, leading to global hubs for quantum research. 

“We don't have the big lead that you might say that we have in some other fields,” Merzbacher noted. “There are governments who are spending, you know, probably more than we are on a per capita basis, all around the world.”

Recent research issued by the RAND corporation and commissioned by the Pentagon underscores the advancements the U.S. has made in quantum developments, particularly with military sensor technology and in quantum computing. This is primarily supported by research within the private sector, although government spending on QIST totaled $710 million in 2021.

That study characterized the U.S. quantum efforts as “at or near the global forefront in every application domain.”

“The government really does care,” Merzbacher said. “And so they're taking this sort of geopolitical approach because quantum happens to be emerging into this geopolitical environment.”

Global security has been challenged amid Russia’s continued war on Ukraine, primarily on the cyber front. Law enforcement has cracked down on hacking groups linked to Russia, and federal authorities have issued several warnings to public and private sector companies about protecting their digital infrastructure. 

Merzbacher said that part of the U.S.’s recent partnerships with other countries focused on quantum technology play into the country’s efforts to enhance its cybersecurity posture. She specifies quantum algorithms and their potential to decrypt sensitive data stored on a standard digital computer. 

She notes that such algorithms need to run on a quantum computer, and predicts a working model won’t be available for another decade. 

Regardless, she cautions against complacency, as some hackers are collecting critical data in preparation to be able to decrypt it. 

“Right now, they can't read it, but they can save it. And they can save it for the happy day when they have a quantum computer, and then they can read it,” Merzbacher said. “Even vulnerabilities today that companies can pretty much do nothing about, because it's called ‘harvest now, decrypt later.’”

International partnerships focused on quantum computing and other research will likely center on early-stage talent development but also work to develop regulations and best encryption practices and standards. 

“The fact of the matter is, we have transitioned encryption standards in the past and it takes about 10 years to do, and so it is kind of a little more urgent, I think, than is sometimes appreciated,” she said.