The Quantum Computing Arms Race is not Just About Breaking Encryption Keys

blackdovfx/Getty Images

The strategic technology has wide reaching implications.

Countries designate technologies as strategic for a variety of reasons. Some technologies are regarded as an engine for economic growth, others as a way to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers, a defensive measure, a path to gain economic or national security advantages, or even serve as leverage during times of conflict. We’ve seen this play out with satellites, cellular networks, atomic energy, chip manufacturing and more.

Quantum computing is a new strategic technology with wide-reaching implications. The ability to solve problems and perform calculations that no existing classical computer can, or ever will be able to, opens a plethora of strategic opportunities and challenges.

Much attention has been focused on decryption using quantum computers. The world’s financial systems and many computer networks are protected by an encryption scheme that was once considered unbreakable. And indeed, it would take classical computers many years to break it. But a powerful-enough quantum computer could crack the code in a few hours. Suddenly, bank accounts, health records, and other sensitive information could be left exposed, with untold consequential damages. Though quantum computers that can break the code might not be available for another 5 to 10 years, bad actors are already recording sensitive encrypted information so they’re ready to decrypt it in the future. Even when considering blockchain, public-to-public-key and reused public-to-public-key-hash addresses are vulnerable to quantum attacks, raising concerns about bitcoin and contracts that are secured by the blockchain.

Those same quantum computing technologies can also act as a strong defensive measure. Many organizations are using quantum technology, and specifically, quantum key distribution, to create encryption schemes that are much more difficult to break or gain access to.

But while companies should indeed consider the positive and negative impact of quantum computers on their encryption and communication systems, they should also be aware that they can gain strategic leverage from superior quantum computing technology.

Quantum can be a game-changing differentiator when working with huge data sets, models that have numerous variables yet exhibit a high rate of change over time. This can apply to moonshot projects—curing cancer, decoding the human gene—but also to everyday problems such as optimizing shipping routes or balancing personal stock portfolios.

Take, for instance, energy storage. Quantum computers excel at simulating chemical and pharmaceutical compounds. This is because chemical interaction is done at the quantum physics level, and—as Noble Laureate Richard Feynman noted 40 years ago—a quantum system is the best choice to simulate quantum phenomena. Powerful quantum computers, and the software that drives them, can be used to develop superior batteries with higher efficiency, lower weight, and higher capacity. Since batteries represent about 30% of the cost of an electric vehicle and play a critical role in its usefulness, leadership in battery technology could translate to leadership in the electrification of vehicles, energy storage for buildings and more.

Machine learning is another example. Whether to improve conversational AI, solve protein-folding problems or analyze images and videos, countries that develop leading ML capabilities gain strategic advantages. Quantum computing offers dramatic new ML opportunities. They stem from the ability of a quantum computer to load much more information than classical ones, execute numerous calculations simultaneously and use these capabilities to uncover new and meaningful data patterns.

That unique quantum ability to perform numerous calculations in parallel, as opposed to sequentially, comes in handy for better weather forecasting, more accurate assessment of financial risk and the ability to streamline the supply chain, optimize traffic and improve the dynamic allocation of shared resources, such as cellular spectrums.

Many countries understand this. Indeed, we are seeing a global “quantum arms race”, bearing similarities to the space race of decades ago. China, for instance, is reportedly investing $10 billion in a national quantum program. The European Union has pledged significant amounts in addition to what member-states are pledging individually. The US committed $1.2 billion as part of the National Quantum Initiative, followed by another $1 billion in National Science Foundation funding for AI and quantum centers.  Many additional countries including Russia, Japan, India, Germany and France have created their own national quantum programs.

Given the strategic and wide-ranging consequences of superior quantum computing capacity, it is fair to ask what constitutes technical superiority. We look at two key components: hardware and software. Quantum computing hardware is about exploring new ways to create high-quality quantum bits— or qubits—and integrating them into machines with larger capacity and higher computational accuracy. But this hardware will be useless without software that allows researchers to quickly translate their algorithms into the low-level instructions that quantum computers need to operate. Yet this quantum circuit creation is done nearly manually today, very close to the hardware itself. But as computers become larger and more powerful, it will become impossible for humans to cope with the scale and complexity of quantum circuits—unless they harness new breakthroughs in software development platforms.

Conventional computing capabilities are limited: you have to break the data into 1’s and 0’s. Quantum changes that and thus opens many opportunities that can look at multiple variables simultaneously.

Attaining and retaining strategic advantages requires long-term planning and focused execution. Analysts say that the U.S. lost the “5G war” to China. Can the US afford to lose the quantum race as well? What if China or another nation unveiled tomorrow morning a scientifically-credible demonstration of a computer that cracks financial encryption or accurately simulates a complex molecule? Overnight, the world will feel completely different.

Here are four ways countries can increase their chances of winning the race:

  1.  Fund investment in fundamental research. Just like the NIH invested heavily in addressing HIV, the government can use its wallet to encourage academic and industrial research centers to develop next-generation architectures and build higher-performance computers.
  2. Invest in the workforce. Quantum computing requires a different way of thinking about software design. Indeed, most quantum computers today are programmed by people with Ph.D.-level physics and quantum information science degrees. But people with such qualifications are increasingly hard to find. By helping train the next generation of quantum software engineers, and investing in technologies that make quantum programming more accessible, countries can help close the gap between demand and supply for quantum software engineers.
  3. Create an initial market for these products, as a precursor to free-market demand. During the original space race, it became clear that computers needed to be miniaturized with the help of integrated circuits. By guaranteeing the initial purchase of a large quantity of product, just like the U.S. government guaranteed the purchase of COVID vaccines before they were fully developed, the government can reduce the risk of these big-ticket investments.
  4. Control the export of strategic technology. While ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its flaws, it succeeded to a large extent in preventing powerful weapons technology from falling into the wrong hands.

We are at a critical juncture. Let’s not wait for the quantum equivalent of a “Sputnik moment”. Rarely does a new technology come along that provides those who can harness it with this level of power. 

Now is the time to grab the quantum bull by the horns. Our children and grandchildren will thank us for it. 

Adm. Mike Rogers is the former head of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. Nir Minerbi is the CEO and co-founder at quantum software provider Classiq.