The emerging computing technology offers the potential for significant advancements, but also carries the possibility of never-before-seen threats.
Quantum technologies have the potential to produce breakthroughs in computing, sensing and communications during our lifetime. However, alongside the incredible opportunities they offer to enhance mission attainment, quantum technologies can introduce unprecedented threats. For example, federal consensus is growing that quantum computing will threaten mainstream encryption methods at the heart of our cybersecurity infrastructure by the end of the decade. Recent National Institute of Standards and Technology and Department of Homeland Security assessments highlight the potential difficulties of updating our nations’ cybersecurity posture before this threat fully emerges.
Now is the time for leaders to educate themselves on quantum’s game-changing capabilities to start preparing for the quantum revolution.
Quantum changes the rules of the game
Quantum Information Science enables fundamentally different approaches to processing information. These changes redefine what is possible, for better and worse, and are best illustrated by three key QIS technology clusters: computing, sensing and communications.
- Computing: Quantum computers process information differently than today’s computers—also referred to as classical computers—and can significantly accelerate certain types of calculations. This may drive breakthroughs in a variety of optimization and search problems, leading to real-world improvements in fraud detection, traffic control, financial portfolio management, chemical simulation and more. For example, leveraging quantum computers to expedite protein folding calculations opens the door to advances in a variety of fields, from agriculture to drug discovery.
- Sensing: Quantum sensors capitalize on new ways of controlling and exploiting the relationship between particles to improve measurement accuracy and enable new modalities for sensors. These devices’ sensitivities to their environments can signal previously undetectable behaviors. Quantum sensing technologies’ ability to deliver novel information unlocks new possibilities regarding the role they can play as components in larger systems, including autonomous vehicles and medical diagnostic instruments. Well-known quantum sensors already exist (e.g., MRI machines, atomic clocks) but advances in fundamental QIS can lead to even more precise measurements and open the door to measurement realms previously thought inaccessible.
- Communications: Quantum communications leverage quantum mechanical properties to improve information sharing and security. When securely implemented, these technologies have the potential to detect interference in new ways and avoid eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks. While quantum communications may offer promising advances for information security in the future, the National Security Agency recommends post-quantum cryptography to protect against a fast-approaching threat to today’s encryption. PQC is a classical solution to this problem, allowing us to begin planning for implementation today. Since 1994, Shor’s Algorithm—a computational method of finding the prime factors of an integer—has proffered a threat to public key encryption. Once the hardware necessary to implement it has caught up. Some estimates have such hardware becoming available by 2030, and PQC presents a compelling solution to allow today’s computers to protect our data against the impending quantum threat.
Quantum technologies are a strategic imperative
QIS remains in the early stages of research and development, and we know that current use cases are just scratching the surface of what quantum technologies can achieve. As theoretical and applied research questions vie for selection, agencies should work to develop quantum strategies as quickly as possible to ensure their research priorities keep pace with technology evolution. While shared applications certainly exist, such as the ticking clock on implementing PQC within this decade, nurturing research specific to different industry and organizational needs offers valuable opportunities.
QIS investment is a strategic imperative, and we are seeing this race playing out on the world stage. The United States continues to pursue legislative and executive actions to ensure its leadership in QIS. Since its signing in 2018, the National Quantum Initiative Act has driven a coordinated QIS R&D strategy to ensure the United States’ economic and national security in the fast-approaching quantum era. The NQI Supplement to the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget shows that the United States is well on its way to meeting its goal to double its QIS R&D budgets by 2022 from its baseline of $435 million in 2020.
Preparing for quantum technologies
Quantum technologies will not develop as iterative applications that are easy to anticipate. Nothing illustrates this better than the algorithms that have developed ahead of the hardware necessary to run them. Some are known, such as the algorithm expected to break public key encryption. Others are yet to be discovered. While it is easy to allow QIS research to feel like a future problem, it is important to call attention to the real-world impacts that exist today. Further, today’s research is doing more than refining future quantum use cases. It is providing immediate benefits for classical computing approaches as it uncovers quantum computers’ current capabilities and examines the types of problems that truly require quantum solutions. As governments and organizations continue to invest in QIS, we learn more about innovative approaches within reach today and transformative applications in sight tomorrow.
Jordan Kenyon, PhD is a senior lead scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton. JD Dulny, PhD is a director and serves as Booz Allen’s firm-wide quantum lead. The Booz Allen quantum team focuses on the science and impact of quantum technologies to client missions.