Quantum International Relations

Quantum International Relations

U.S. quantum funding spikes: Too little, too late in the race to establish dominance in quantum communications?


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By Gabriella Skoff and James Der Derian | Gif via The New York Times

As we enter a new decade, the world’s biggest competitors in science and technology continue to race ahead toward a strategic advantage in quantum technologies. National investments in quantum technologies, alongside others such as AI, are on the rise globally. It is clear from the numbers that nations are taking the development of their respective quantum industries seriously. While there has been a steady climb in national funding for quantum science and technology over the past ten years, 2020 arrived with headlines of a significant jump in the latest U.S. budget. This recent federal pivot toward investment in quantum capabilities, especially in the area of quantum communications, signifies that the U.S. is taking seriously the threat that one country in particular could reach the finish line first.

The U.S. and China lead the pack when it comes to funding the quantum race. It is generally accepted that China has taken a commanding lead in the development of secure quantum communications, while the U.S. is the front-runner in quantum computing. Recent data from Patininformatics illustrates the comparative levels of research focus through the lens of applied patents. In 2018, China had nearly twice the number of patents filed for quantum technology than the U.S., with a strong focus in the areas of quantum communications and cryptography. Since 2017, China has been actively engaged in the construction, expansion and improvement of a ground-based national quantum communications infrastructure and is heavily focused on deploying a growing net of quantum-enabled satellites for space-based quantum secure communications.

For China, this focus is no accident. As recently noted by the director of Project Q, this technological strategy was in part motivated by the 2013 leaks from former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. According to multiple sources, the information disclosed by Snowden revealing extensive and effective U.S. cyber-espionage in China proved to be a major catalyst for China’s rapid quantum communications development. The Chinese “Father of Quantum” himself, leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei, regularly mentions in interviews that the leaks motivated and accelerated his own research in quantum communications.

At the same time, data from the most recent Patinformatics report indicates that the U.S. continues to lead the world in quantum computing patent filings. The U.S.’s edge in quantum computing can be largely, if not entirely, attributed to private sector players such as IBM and Google. These U.S. companies, responsible for most quantum computing patents filed in the U.S., are blazing the trail in the development of a functional quantum computer, presenting a strong asset for the American security apparatus, so long as these companies can be kept on-side. This presents an interesting contrast to China, where quantum technological development lies at the heart of the government and is controlled directly and predominantly through top-down, state means. However, this present binary, pitting an offensive U.S. innovation apparatus against a defensive, Chinese future-proofing infrastructure is beginning to disentangle.

The question of who will “win” the quantum race has so far been deflected as “too early to say”, with a finish line that is not only further away than expected but is also proving difficult to even define. If, however, one follows the money, new signs are emerging of two countries changing leads at every furlough. In the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community produced for the U.S. Senate, China’s “multifaceted, long-term, whole-of-government approach to foreign technology acquisition and indigenous technology development” is presented as a major threat to U.S. security. Further, the report highlights: “advances in quantum computing foreshadow challenges to current methods of protecting data and transactions”—pegging the value of defensive quantum capabilities square with offensive capabilities.

Although China might well dominate the realm of defensive quantum communications, it is difficult to track the country’s efforts to mount an offensive capacity to break codes and attack databases. Nonetheless, concern has been voiced in the U.S. (in government more so than in academic circles) about the large number of Chinese students working in the sensitive area of quantum sciences at American and other western universities. There is mounting anxiety that Chinese studying in the U.S. and Australia are receiving western training in the quantum sciences only to bring the knowledge back to China to be used for adversarial military applications. This opinion is also reflected in the U.S. Threat Assessment Report: “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means”.

Critics have urged for years that the U.S. government should be far more proactive toward building out defensive quantum technological capabilities, so as not to be caught on the back foot once quantum computing comes to fruition. However, recent U.S. efforts have focused instead on achieving an episodic ‘quantum supremacy’ in computing. While this makes sense from a purely strategic or corporate perspective, the imbalance of focus has created a serious vulnerability for critical infrastructure and information systems which have not yet been secured as quantum-proof. This possibility is more real now than ever, as China has begun to focus on its quantum computing development, bolstered by top researchers (many foreign-educated) and quantum computing initiatives from powerful and well-resourced Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu.

Further, China’s $10 billion-dollar National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Hefei is currently under construction, and is set to be the world’s largest quantum research facility. According to the South China Morning Post, a “key mission” of the facility is to house the experts, laboratories and equipment required for China to “build the nation’s first supercomputer that could break an encrypted message in seconds”. If no delays arise, the facility should be completed this year. The Chinese whole-of-government approach to quantum financing and direction has so far proven to be incredibly effective and potent, demonstrating a capacity for rapid breakthroughs.

The recently released 2021 U.S. Budget for Science and Technology can be seen as a confirmation that the impact of the Chinese approach has finally registered, prompting the U.S. to take these developments seriously. The U.S. has now earmarked $25 million USD for the creation of its own national quantum internet, a stimulus which appears to be aimed at pushing the U.S. to catch up to China’s lead in quantum communications. The funds are slated by the U.S. Energy Department to be used for connecting 17 national research labs across the country in order to create a test network to explore quantum encryption and ultimately to build a secure quantum network. This is the largest amount of dedicated funding in the U.S. for quantum communications to date, following a pattern of increases in funding for quantum technologies in the U.S., which has increased fivefold over the last three years.

China’s opacity about investment and progress in quantum computing may not differ radically from other governments practicing strategic secrecy or corporations seeking to preserve proprietary interests. But if there is indeed a rapid innovation by one side or the other, the seamlessness of the military-corporate-research complex in China makes it that much easier for the country to “go dark”, leaving the U.S. and its allies with little warning of the crypto-security breach that could follow. The recent spike in governmental funding for quantum communications in the U.S. appears to signal that Washington is taking this threat seriously, but it may be too little too late for the U.S. to maintain a strategic advantage in the critical domain of quantum computing and communication. Ultimately, what sets off alarm bells inside the Beltway could well light up the Belt and the Road with celebratory fireworks.

Quantum Applications, Quantum International Relations, Quantum Internet

The quantum internet should be space-based—or should it?


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Feature image via Vice

Satellites have become critical tools in infrastructure and defence. They control GPS systems, enable international communications, allow us to watch the news “live” and track and relay information about the weather and other natural events. They facilitate business and financial communications, as well as radio and telephone capabilities. Satellites have become utterly vital to state infrastructures, making them fundamental assets for competing global powers. Now, we learn that new satellite constellations are being presented as the best way forward to empower a global quantum internet. As the use-value of satellites broadens and we become ever-more dependent on the networks and systems they support, two critical threats loom large. One, the physical threat of space debris; and two, the threat posed by the increasing militarization of space. These challenges to the implementation of a space-based quantum internet have not yet surfaced in the developing debate but must be addressed as we stand on the brink of the quantum age.

New research conducted by a Louisiana State University team led by Sumeet Khatri suggests that satellite-based technology is the best way forward to build a global quantum internet. According to the researchers, a quantum-enabled satellite constellation would be the most cost-effective approach to realise the next big application in quantum communications. Khatri’s team suggests that the most effective and logistically coherent system for a space-based quantum internet would require a constellation of at least 400 satellites, circling the globe in mid-Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 3,000 kilometres. On its own, 400 may not seem like a huge number of satellites, however, by way of comparison, GPS only needs 24 satellites to operate effectively. The nature of quantum entanglement—the essential property of non-locality utilized in quantum-satellite communications—is incredibly fragile, thus requiring a relatively high number of satellites and base stations to allow quantum information to travel without loss of signal.

Space Debris

Currently, there are around 2,000 active and 3,000 non-operational satellites orbiting Earth. Aside from these, National Geographic reports that there could be up to 500,000 pieces of what is known as space debris—man-made bits and pieces separated from rockets, space stations and satellites or simply left behind in space—littering Earth’s orbit. Space debris can vary in size, from a fleck of paint to an entire defunct satellite. It does not float idly through space, but rather, travels at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour (approximately 28,163 km/h). At such great speeds, even a piece of debris as small as a pebble could cause serious damage in a collision with other Earth-orbiting objects such as space stations or satellites. As such, these collisions not only pose a risk to astronauts and space stations (powerfully depicted in the 2013 film, Gravity) but also to critical satellite-based communications infrastructures.

The challenge posed by space debris has not only made its way in popular culture but is heavily monitored by NASA, as a satellite and space-mission security issue. Today, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defence use ground-based telescopes and laser radars to monitor and report on the locations of more than 1,700 pieces of space debris in order to help prevent collisions with operating spacecraft and satellites. These efforts have so far proven sufficient—only a few collisions have occurred that have caused considerable damage to either spacecraft or satellites, but the potentiality for collision events is becoming increasingly common. At the same time, plans to launch more and more satellites are announced regularly by both state and non-state actors. While the situation is currently manageable, a predicted influx of over 50,000 satellites in orbit over the next decade would certainly tip the scales. A satellite-based quantum internet would, of course, add to this crowded milieu.

As a now poignant 1998 article, The Danger of Space Junk, for The Atlantic warned: “over time everything in Earth’s orbit will be ground into celestial scrap”, creating “a mausoleum of space technology”. Scientists now warn that if we do not manage existing space debris and ensure that future satellites and spacecraft are fitted with de-orbiting mechanisms, this reality will soon come to fruition. Most space-bound objects have no built-in function for de-orbiting and will continue to float (or rather, zoom) through the congested low- and mid-Earth orbit as they break into smaller and smaller fractions through degradation or collision with other orbiting objects. Each collision, no matter how small, exponentially compounds the problem.

This problem, which we are now beginning to witness, is known as the Kessler Syndrome. The eponymous Kessler Syndrome was posed by NASA’s Donald Kessler in 1978 in a co-authored quantitative study on the issue. The theory argues that the continued launching of satellites without a plan for de-orbit will lead to exponential collision frequency, creating a “debris belt” in low-Earth orbit that could render future space exploration and the use of satellites impossibly risky, creating a huge setback that could last generations. This leads to a concerning prognosis for the maintenance of entire space-borne infrastructures, which, among other critical functions, transmit national secrets and protect society from incoming natural and man-made disasters like hurricanes and missiles.

There are a variety of niche innovations underway that aim to confront this encroaching challenge, including Japan’s giant space whip (known as the electrodynamic tether, or EDT), which intends to swat debris out of earth’s orbit, causing it to incinerate as it falls toward Earth. The most effective technology for the job, however, is for future satellites to be built with a functionality to end their own lives once their tasks are complete, using their last bit of power to head back toward Earth where they will burn up in the atmosphere in order to self-decommission. This is currently a rapidly evolving space where new innovations are being applied and tested regularly. Projects like D-Orbit’s purpose-built, de-commissioning cubesat and the World Economic Forum’s 2019 project to create a space sustainability rating look hopeful. These types of conscious industry advances are necessary in order to ensure we avoid the Kessler Syndrome, so we can continue to use space sustainably to host novel satellite applications like a quantum internet.

Security

As we have reported on previously, space itself is no sanctuary from geopolitical rivalries. The implementation of a space-based global quantum internet will present a challenge for the grey area of international space development. Quantum satellites straddle the fine line between non-militarised and militarised infrastructure. Quantum technologies are heavily invested in by military-state apparatus—especially in China and the U.S. For either of these countries, the large-scale deployment of quantum-satellites could push us over that line and into an uncertain future of a highly militarised outer space. Already, U.S. President Donald Trump has initiated the development of a dedicated space arm in the U.S. defence forces with Space Force. In China too, the space and military programs are the same entity. Satellites are the centrepieces in both U.S. and Chinese space-security programs, both in offensive and defensive capacities. Recently, Russia, France and Norway have also invested heavily in satellites for a variety of security motivations.

While the conversation around space-military fusions sounds like the stuff of futurist, sci-fi fiction, it is very much a real and unfolding topic in the meta-geopolitical debate. Meta-geopolitics, untethered from traditional geographic constraints, refers to a new phase of international relations contextualised by the rise of border-defying security threats, like terrorism, cyber warfare and espionage, and global warming. It also extends to outer space, where our ever-growing dependence on satellite-based infrastructure is at increasing risk of interference and jamming by state or non-state actors.

China has been a demonstrated leader in both satellite-based quantum communications and offensive security since 2007, when the country tested its anti-satellite missile—a move that thrust satellites to the top of military agendas, especially in the U.S. In 2016, China launched Micius, the first quantum satellite that would soon facilitate ground-to-space quantum-secure communications across the globe. Since then, as we heard at last year’s Q Symposium from Jingyun Fan of China’s University of Science and Technology (watch his presentation here, from 1:10), China has been hard at work, refining the quantum communications capabilities of Micius. Aside from China and Europe, satellite-enabled quantum communications efforts are also underway in North America and the Indo-Pacific, including in Australia. The development of this new wave of satellite technology is only just beginning in earnest and promises to see more and more purpose-built quantum-satellites launched into earth’s low and middle-orbit in the coming years.

From a security perspective, achieving global quantum communications has long been a target, as it promises to enable hack-proof security for long-distance information transmission. While the achievements have so far been narrow, a space-based quantum internet is the next step in ensuring the tamper-proof transmission of vital information across the globe. It is easy to understand the benefit of these capabilities to any national or allied security apparatus. It is equally clear to see how the targeted destruction of quantum-satellites could become an immensely effective tactic in war. Enter space as a new “operational domain” of war, as recently declared by NATO in November of 2019. The inclusion of space as an operational domain acknowledges both the alliance’s critical reliance on satellite infrastructure and the growing threat posed by anti-satellite weaponry capabilities.

We are witnessing a rapid cluttering and securitization of outer space, a “frontier” that once seemed boundless, beyond human reach. Before state and non-state actors continue to dive head-long into this process, they should pause to consider the reality we are facing—a global, quantum space-based effort would put new pressure on an already saturated and precarious potential field of combat. Maintenance of the status quo will push the world into a grey area in both quantum and political science, where the path forward presents risks we are only just beginning to witness and understand. As our satellite capabilities expand and our tethered dependency on these orbital-objects grows, so too does the severity of the threat of their potential interference, blocking or destruction—by accident or by design.

Quantum Applications, Quantum International Relations, Quantum Internet

The ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why’ of a Quantum Internet


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With all of the recent hype about quantum supremacy, it’s easy to forget that quantum supremacy in communications was demonstrated years ago. One of the most exciting developments on the horizon for quantum communications is a quantum internet, which will securely transmit quantum information. Like most things quantum, the label of “quantum internet” has been slapped on to a quantum technological application, establishing a concept that is easily consumable for the masses, which helps to create the hype that keeps funding for that application flowing. The reality, as is often the case, is much more complex.

In fact, just about the only thing that scientists agree on is that the term “quantum internet” does not have an agreed-upon definition. That is because the technology required to manifest this reality is still in its infancy. Scientists around the world are working hard to change that. Perhaps the most well-known is Stephanie Wehner of Delft University of Technology. In preparation for the release of Project Q’s interview with Wehner on this topic, we reflect on the current stage of global development of a quantum internet.

Since 2004, the security afforded by quantum communications has been proven superior by a method known as quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD is a system employed to produce and distribute a secret key that can then be used to encode classical information. This method has since been employed by a number of actors across both private and public sectors, including banks and national security networks. It does not, however provide a secure link by which quantum information can be transmitted. Enter one important motivation for a quantum internet: to create a network of quantum nodes that enables the secure transfer of quantum information. Of course, there are a diversity of useful applications for such a network and many more still which will develop as the technology matures. One needs only to recall the history of the classical internet, for which the first projected use-value was extremely narrow, to imagine the breadth and depth of applications that will surely follow once the technology is functional.

However, a salient challenge for researchers working on a quantum internet remains. Like the classical internet, a quantum internet requires a physical infrastructure in order to function. There have been a diversity of approaches to this complex problem, from diamonds to crystals and drones to satellites. For the most part, however, the emerging dominant systems rely heavily on land-based fibre-optic cables, with some major differences between them.

In 2016 China launched their quantum satellite, Micius, as part of their Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) project. Within a year of the satellite’s launch, major goals paving the way for a quantum internet had been achieved by a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Professor Jian-Wei Pan. These ground-to-satellite quantum communication advances included the impressive feat of establishing a quantum-secure communication spanning the longest distance yet between two different points on the globe (Beijing and Vienna) via Micius. Recently, China has also constructed the largest fibre-based quantum communication backbone, known as the Beijing-Shanghai quantum link, which stretches a distance of over 1,200 miles. However, while the link is already in use by some of China’s biggest banks to transfer sensitive data, it is not fully quantum-secure (more on that shortly).

While we have known that quantum communication is theoretically possible for some time, China has been the first country to focus its research apparatus on the challenge, building the first dedicated, large-scale infrastructure for the task. From a security perspective, this is a strategic move on China’s part. The focus on quantum communications is a pre-emptive defence mechanism to combat U.S. advances in the quantum computing space. Regardless of the development of computers, which will be capable of hacking any classical communications, a quantum-secure network will be act as a safeguard against prying eyes and ears. As a result, China continues to be a world leader in this space. However, Europe is hot on its heels and lining up to take the cake for the next big development in quantum communications: creating a functioning quantum internet.

You may have heard of the work being done to build a quantum network in the Netherlands by a team of researchers at the Delft University of Technology. Much like China’s Beijing-Shanghai quantum link, the Delft team is constructing a link between four major cities in the Netherlands, stretching from Delft to Amsterdam.

The main difference between the China quantum link and the one being built by Wehner and her team is that the Chinese infrastructure, while greatly improving upon most current cybersecurity capabilities, is still susceptible to hacking. Theoretically, a genuine quantum link will provide un-hackable connection across large distances. The Chinese system relies on 32 nodes across the link in order to transport quantum information, which is carried in photons, or light particles. Each of these nodes is susceptible to hacking because they serve as points where the information must be decrypted and then re-encrypted before the information continues its journey along the link. The system was constructed in this way because quantum information carried in photons can only travel through about 100 miles of fibre-optic cable before it begins to dim and lose data.

A solution to this problem, which Stephanie and her team have incorporated into their design from the outset, and which the Chinese team is beginning to work with as they improve their own link, is the use of quantum repeaters. This is how they work:

A quantum repeater essentially serves the same purpose as an ordinary relay node, except it works in a slightly different way. A network using quantum repeaters is shaped more like a family tree than a linear chain. In this family tree-shaped game of telephone, the quantum repeater is the parent who distributes identical pairs of quantum keys between two children, therefore doubling the possible distance between users. Moreover, these “parents” can also have their own “parents,” which can then double the key-sharing distance between the children at the bottom for every extra level created atop the family tree. This in effect increases the distance a quantum message can be sent without ever having to decrypt it.

An illustration of the type of quantum network being built by the Delft team.

Alongside their use of quantum repeaters, which provide an infrastructure to teleport the quantum entangled information across the link, the Delft team incorporates the use of quantum memories as an essential element in ensuring the information’s hyper-secure journey. Quantum memories store the entangled information in between the repeaters. They are critical because they enable the network to store the quantum information while the next entangled link is prepared, rather than measuring it and thus potentially destroying it. A system enabled by quantum repeaters and quantum memories eliminates the need to incorporate weak security points in the system where the quantum information is decrypted and then re-encrypted, or potentially destroyed.

Though significant challenges remain for researchers working to build a quantum internet, international efforts become more and sophisticated with each passing day, bringing the world closer to potential quantum network connectivity. While it is being built to supplement certain capabilities of the classical internet, some believe that eventually, the quantum internet will even overtake the classical. Most agree, however, that this will not be a reality even in our lifetime. After all, as Wehner commented in a recent interview with Project Q for our upcoming publication, you don’t really need a quantum internet to watch Netflix.

Tune in next week to read our exclusive interview with Stephanie Wehner, where she updates us on the project’s advancements, answers questions about future use-values for a quantum internet and addresses the challenging ethics of building a network that will enable un-hackable communications.

Artificial Intelligence, Quantum International Relations, Quantum Research

India Races Toward Quantum Amid Kashmir Crisis


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Amid troubling news of serious human rights violations carried out in India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir—including a debilitating digital blockade lasting over two weeks—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an agreement with France for a landmark technological collaboration in quantum and artificial intelligence (AI). The Indo-French collaboration between French company Atos and India’s Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) will establish a Quantum Computing Experience Centre at C-DAC’s headquarters in Pune, India and deliver an Atos Quantum Learning Machine. The high technology partnership, which “advocate[s] a vision of digital technologies that empowers citizens, reduces inequalities, and promotes sustainable development”, sits upon the controversial backdrop of India’s current actions in the Kashmir crisis and presents an interesting view into the intersection of international politics and quantum technologies.

During his first term, Narendra Modi began to position India as a global technology hub, putting its innovation sector on the map by embracing international investment and collaboration. The advancements that have been made over the last five years as a result of these activities have helped to fuel India’s socioeconomic development and cement its place on the global stage as a major emerging economy with a vibrant technology sector. Now in his second term, Modi seeks to apply a digital taxation to global technology giants like Google and Facebook on their activities in India. Though this policy shift has been identified as a potential barrier to Big Tech’s incentive to contribute to India’s start-up space, Modi has nevertheless continued to cultivate a tech-forward name for his government. His “New India” government focuses on sustainable development and emerging technologies, especially agricultural technology, AI and quantum.

Within this context, India’s national quantum technology research and development capacity has blossomed at a rapid pace, especially with regard to quantum mechanical theory and theoretical physics research and software development. However, unlike the top competitors in quantum computing such as China and the U.S., India lacks a strong quantum computing hardware industry, a challenge which could be exacerbated by Modi’s Big Tech taxation policy. In order to supplement research activities in its burgeoning quantum and AI sectors, Modi has instead turned toward collaboration with international governments as a vehicle to boost domestic technological development. For example, India’s recently established fund-to-fund partnership with Japan will support over 100 start-ups in AI and IoT. Likewise, the new Indo-French partnership is a critical piece of the puzzle for India, promising to help boost its national deficiency in applied quantum computing development and help India to become a leader in the quantum space.

With international partnerships playing such a key role in Modi’s plan for the development and growth of India’s quantum computing and AI industries, there is a sense that the country’s actions in state-controlled Jammu and Kashmir are damaging its international reputation. This perspective, however, is demonstrably negated by the signing of the Indo-French bilateral agreement. The agreement, which stipulates French alignment with India as a partner in sustainable development and emerging technologies, outlines the countries’ shared commitment to “an open, reliable, secure, stable and peaceful cyberspace”. It was signed into existence even as India, the world leader in internet shutdowns, enacted a digital lockdown on Kashmir for the 51st time in 2019 alone. This data sits in stark contrast to the stated objectives of the partnership and demonstrates the separation of business from peace-building priorities on an international scale.

The Kashmir conflict, a turbulent territorial dispute between India, Pakistan and China, dates back to the partition of 1947 and has already incited four wars between India and Pakistan. Kashmir, dubbed one of the world’s most militarized zones, is of strategic value to both countries and is India’s only Muslim-majority region. The recent conflict was spurred by a series of brutal attacks and rebellions since February 2019, which ultimately led the Modi government to revoke India-controlled Kashmir’s “special status” of autonomy granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Given this complex history and characterization, India’s fresh assault on the region has led many (including Pakistan’s own Prime Minister) to fear an escalation of violence that could result in a worst-case-scenario nuclear face-off between India and Pakistan.

Whether or not it is representative of the true feelings of Modi’s “New India”, Indian national media has expressed nearly unequivocal supportive of the revocation of Article 370. French comments, however, lean toward neutrality—tactfully holding the situation at arm’s length while urging for a bilateral negotiation between India and Pakistan. Regardless of the two countries coming to a peaceful resolution or not, it appears that international investment in Indian quantum and AI development shall not waver in the face of the Kashmir conflict. Ironically, as India sprints to catch up in the quantum race with the support of France and other international allies, the results of the past technological nuclear arms “race” looms heavy over the continent.

Quantum International Relations

Where is the Middle East in the Quantum Race?


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Gabriella Skoff

The quantum race, like the space race before it, is a technological marathon with major implications for international relations. This defining quality sets the stage upon which the race is run, presenting competitors with an opportunity to demonstrate their economic and technological prowess to the rest of the world. Perhaps even more so than in the case of the space race, the winner of the quantum race will establish the winner’s name as a world leader in the Digital Age by gaining an unparalleled, strategic security advantage. With such high stakes, countries across the globe are investing in building their quantum capacities, if not to win the race, then at least to not be left behind. While China and the U.S. are currently frontrunners, countries from Europe to Latin America are joining the race, rapidly investing in quantum technology research and development. And yet, a region that has for so long dominated discussions about international relations and security appears to be missing in the line-up. Where is the Middle East in the quantum race?

For most nations in the Middle East, quantum investment is simply not a major priority. There is a complex set of reasons, unique to each country, for why this is the case. Many countries in the region have been plagued by war and instability over the last decade—producing both a deficit of government funds and an inadequate environment for exploration and innovation to occur. As with the space race, the countries that have risen to the top of the quantum food chain have done so upon the backdrop of relative stability, growth and wealth. Several countries in the region, however, have begun to emerge as quantum competitors with increasing capacity and focus: Israel, the Gulf countries, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

These countries share some of the conditions required for the establishment of international technological partnerships, investment and a privileged focus on innovation. The ambitions and specialities of their growing quantum programs, however, differ notably in relation to their specific geopolitical situations. Israel, a country known for its heavily U.S.-funded defence and arms expertise, is investing in quantum technologies largely for security applications. The Gulf counties, well-known for their economic reliance on oil production, are distinctly invested in the areas of innovation and capacity-building, especially in the UAE where there is a growing focus on quantum applications in the energy industry. Iran’s quantum efforts, largely directed through well-established and internationally connected knowledge institutions, are also heavily influenced by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal).

While scant information is available about these countries’ nascent quantum efforts, their momentum is growing, slowly but surely. From a geopolitical perspective, the ability to compete on the global stage with quantum technology research and development would be a critical advantage for any nation in the Middle East.

ISRAEL

The quantum race began in earnest in the early 2000’s, making Israel a late-comer to the game. Just last year, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the country’s entrance into the quantum race with an investment of NIS 100 million in a quantum technology research fund (approximately USD 28.2 million equivalent). According to The Jerusalem Post, the ongoing project is a collaboration between the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (MAFAT), the Higher Education Committee and the Israel Science Foundation. The project’s aim is to support Israel’s intelligence-gathering capacity, and as such will likely focus on the areas of quantum communications and computing. This month, Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) announced plans to pursue joint quantum research and development programs with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and U.S. Defense Forces, along with other high-tech industry players both in Israel and abroad.

Significantly, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II and the vast majority of this funding, quoted at $134.7 billion total, goes directly to Israel’s defense programs. As such, Israel’s ability to support scientific research and development (R&D) with military funding has come to resemble the American system, where the Department of Defense (DoD) is one of the biggest funders of national scientific research and development. This has manifested as vast amounts of military investment in Israel’s high-technology sector. According to the OECD, the country’s gross domestic spending on R&D since 2015 has been the highest in the world. As a result, the science and technology sector in Israel is one of the most well-developed and profitable in the world.

Historically, Israel has prioritised the development of home-grown technological expertise and innovation through industry and its higher education system. The immense amount of military and defense funding coupled with highly-skilled immigration booms and an extremely economically and socially invested network of Jewish populations living abroad have enabled Israel to build a thriving, national high-technology industry. Geographically surrounded by Muslim-majority countries in a radically contentious area, Israel has maintained its space in the Middle East essentially through establishing its presence as a highly militarized nation with vital support from powerful friends. Within this context and motivated by a lack of natural resources, Israel became the leader in high technology military exports that it is today.

Given this context and history, Israel’s recent pivot in focus toward quantum technologies is no surprise. The country’s keen focus on security and defense applications currently dominates the scope of their quantum R&D programs, but civilian applications are promised as the next phase of development.

THE GULF NATIONS

While Israel may eventually corner the market in quantum computing and communications for military applications, the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have entered the race with a different aim. This year the Gulf nations launched quantum computing research groups in their respective countries with the goal of creating an ecosystem for capacity-building and ultimately, knowledge production, in quantum technologies. Already an authority in technological research in the Middle East and a rising star in research output worldwide, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science is well-positioned to become a regional leader in the quantum computing space. Further, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco presents existing experience with supercomputer systems, a considerable advantage in the quantum race.

Recently, the UAE has turned its focus toward forming vital partnerships with global tech giants and has been rewarded by agreements with some of the biggest names in quantum computing, D-Wave and Microsoft. Last year, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) announced its participation in the Microsoft Quantum Computing Programme to develop quantum-based solutions for energy-optimization. Notably, DEWA is the first organisation outside of the U.S. to participate in the program. This suggests the UAE is taking a forward-looking approach to shift its economy and applying quantum innovation in the sustainable energy sector—a strategic pivot for a country where 30% of the GDP is directly based on oil and gas output. Last year as well, the UAE Minister for artificial intelligence enacted a partnership with Canadian quantum computing company, D-Wave, to bring the region its first quantum computer, which will be housed at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

Broadly, these advancements are couched by the motive to ensure the ongoing production of innovation through knowledge development, a trend that is currently sweeping the Arab states. The pressing need to begin diversifying the economies of these oil-producing nations has also contributed to investment in new quantum programs. However, the Gulf countries lack the population sizes and national research budgets to compete with the rest of the world in the quantum race. For this reason, the Gulf countries are looking toward public-private partnerships as a way to develop their quantum computing sectors further, bringing vital knowledge and facilities to the region.

These recent developments appear to be at least in part a response to a widely-referenced 2019 World Government Summit report authored in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) by Simone Vernacchia. The report seems to have stoked a fire, urging the Gulf countries to begin investing in quantum technologies:

If they do not, they risk missing out on the many advantages that will be on offer across every sector, and they will face an increasing threat if they fail to plan for the next generation of cyber-security…. Building up knowledge and specific skills in the field, along with preparing defensive post-quantum computing cyber-strategies, can be considered urgent priorities.

The report makes clear the risks of missing the moment to join the quantum race but also points to a number of regional opportunities for quantum innovation within the existing oil production industry, national security apparatus and diversification into new industries. It is clear from the establishment of these early partnerships between the UAE, D-Wave and Microsoft, that the report’s warnings are not being taken lightly. Rather, the advice is being heeded as essential to ensuring the supremacy of the region’s economy and continued security.

IRAN

A regional competitor to the UAE, Iran is also vying for a place in the quantum race and hoping to take the lead in quantum technological facilities and know-how in the Middle East. The country has had sights set on quantum research as a game-changing industry since around 2015 with the signing of the JCPOA. The JCPOA deal stipulates that in exchange for Iran limiting its uranium-enrichment activities, sanctions against the country imposed by six of the world’s biggest powers will be lifted. The agreement also opened a door for Iran to collaborate with Euratom, the European atomic energy community working in high technology development for nuclear power. Given the tumultuous U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, Iran’s recent quantum efforts have focused on collaboration with European countries and the continued development of its own national capacities.

Although several sources from 2017 state that Iran has entered talks with European nations to collaborate on quantum technology it is unclear whether or not any agreements have been actualised. The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) appears to be the main authority involved in negotiations to build the country’s quantum industry. While European collaboration is a nebulous topic, it appears that the AEOI has been busy at work, proclaiming the two recent victories of creating Iran’s first laboratory equipped with quantum technology research facilities and running its first photon entanglement experiment.

Iran also boasts some of the most well-developed quantum information science programs in the region. As such, the quantum literacy of Iran’s scientists and engineers is higher than in many countries that lack such long-standing research specialisations. The Islamic Republic’s two leading quantum research groups, the Sharif University quantum information group and the Quantronics Lab at the Iran University of Science & Technology are internationally renowned and well-equipped. These advantages were achieved either despite international sanctions, or in the more likely case, after they were lifted through the JCPOA. Last year, the first National Conference on Quantum Technology was held in Tehran and the International Iran Conference on Quantum Information, led by the Sharif group, is now in its sixth year. These conferences serve to bring international knowledge of the latest quantum developments to the region, helping to put Iran on the map as a contender in the quantum race.

It is still early days for the Middle East in the quantum race. The growing quantum programs in the Gulf nations, Israel, and Iran have only been formally created within the past three years and as such their outputs and impacts remain minimal. Nevertheless, these countries, which have been lucky enough to prosper in relatively stable economic and political circumstances, have seized the valuable opportunity to participate in and even to help build what is promised as the next technological revolution. While only time can tell exactly how the quantum race will pan out, this regional competition will undoubtedly open up possibilities to shift existing power dynamics not just between these quantum-empowered Middle Eastern countries, but also on an international scale.

Quantum International Relations

Grand Theories & Wendt’s World


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Feature image via Project Q. Alexander Wendt is a “walking, talking waveform function. And so are you!”

Gabriella Skoff

Quantum mechanics is an unwieldy field to wrap the mind around, to say the least. Quantum phenomena are regularly referred to in headlines as “weird”, even notoriously dubbed as “spooky” by Einstein himself. It is no wonder, then, that the effort to apply quantum theory to the social sciences can often lead to murky associations lacking in lucidity. Yet the divide between the hard sciences and the soft sciences is also blurry. After all, do social phenomena not take place in a world that is ultimately physical? With great clarity and simplicity rarely found in the world of quantum, Grand Theories, a new podcast series that “explores lesser-known ideas that try to explain really big things about the world we live in”, dives into the world of the quantum social sciences.

The podcast’s second episode entitled Quantum Social Sciences and A Holographic Society investigates the recent work of political scientist Alexander Wendt, unpacking some of the complexities and implications of what the podcast calls “Wendt’s Quantum Society”. In this episode, Grand Theories creator and narrator Mark argues to Wendt’s point that perhaps quantum physics can provide a better framework for understanding our social world than classical physics can. This is due in part, he argues, to quantum’s ability to account for randomness and subjectivity. No one would argue that human life is characterized exclusively by the type of cold, hard rationality that is a hallmark feature of dominant economics and international relations thinking like utility maximization and game theory.

Mark explores Wendt’s ideas on quantum social theory by first elucidating some tricky quantum physical theories that underpin Wendt’s 2015 book, Quantum mind and social science: unifying physical and social ontology. He tackles concepts like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the observers effect and entanglement with great clarity, employing a refreshingly accessible tone for non-expert audiences. Through Mark’s analysis of these quantum theories, it becomes clear where Wendt draws parallels in order to interpret our social world through quantum physics. Mark refers to “Wendt’s World” as “…an undetermined, probabilistic place with a thick sense of interconnectedness”. This characterization reflects across Wendt’s quantum-social theories discussed in the podcast, including human decision making, consciousness, entanglement, and perhaps Wendt’s most bizarre-sounding conceptualisation, that society is a hologram which physically exists in the minds of the people that make it up.

This blending of the physical and the social, as theorized by Wendt, is unique and rarely expounded upon in mainstream social science. Yet, the way in which Mark explores these ideas in his podcast shines light upon not just the potential applicability of this merger but also on the important implications that an understanding of a quantum social world might have. While Wendt’s work does not explicitly include a call to action, Mark takes his interpretation one step further to argue that ultimately, Wendt’s theories imply that by virtue of being a part of society we have the power to change the things that we are not happy with. This interpretation of a world ruled by both emotions and rationality, empathy and conflict, suggests that human beings are not only capable of collaboration, but actually inherently drawn toward it. Perhaps there is potentiality for an understanding of our social world through this frame to impact social challenges from climate change action to the de-escalation of wars, should we choose to use “Wendt’s World” as our dominant global lens.

Watch Alexander Wendt’s full lecture on “The Quantum Mind and Social Science.”

Quantum Applications, Quantum Computing, Quantum International Relations

Quantum Policy Priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament


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Feature image from Quintessence Labs

Gabriella Skoff

Ahead of this weekend’s Australian election, Project Q presents our top four quantum related policy priorities for the 46th Australian Parliament.

The Australian government has been invested in the long-term development of quantum computing since 2000. A 2016 investment boost, to the tune of $70 million AUD over five years from business, academia and the Turnbull government, has helped solidify Australia’s position as a real competitor in what has been dubbed the “quantum race”. By relying heavily on support from the private sector and brain-power from NSW knowledge institutions like the University of Sydney’s Nano Institute and UNSW’s Centre for Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), Australia has become recognized as a world leader in silicon-based quantum computing research. But while financial support for quantum computing has been strong, a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes benefits and minimizes harms from these technologies is not at pace.

While Australia is not alone in this position, it is at risk of falling behind. Global quantum competitors are rapidly formalizing proactive policies, in hopes of securing a position on the world stage with this technological development. In the U.S., the government is beginning to think systematically about quantum technology development and enacting policy to match this approach. China, meanwhile, has wasted no time in the coordination and execution of its national quantum policy. The E.U. has also advanced its quantum policy approach and represents the only region to do so with equity and ethics as the backbone of these policies. Whichever party is victorious on Saturday, the 46th Australian Parliament will be presented with the challenge – and the opportunity – to introduce progressive tech policies that will not only boost industry and research, but will protect citizens and pave the way for other countries to follow suit.

For Australia to remain competitive in the quantum race and be prepared for the new reality that will form in the wake of its fulfilment, the 46th Australian Parliament should prioritize the following to create a comprehensive quantum policy:

Security

The coming age of quantum computing will result in a drastic transformation of cyber-security needs. Whether or not Australia wins the quantum race, whoever wins tomorrow’s election will need to address the reality that with the realization of a fully functioning quantum computer will come the ability to hack any system. The Australian Department of Defence is already investing in quantum cryptography, supporting Canberra-based quantum cybersecurity firm Quintessence Labs (QLabs) with AU$528,000 in funding for the further development of quantum key distribution (QKD) technology. This was the largest of eight Defence Department Innovation Hub grants in 2017. It is clear this need has already been recognized by the government in relation to national defence. What is not clear, is how the Australian government will support the keepers of Australians’ most sensitive data—including healthcare services, banks and businesses—to adapt to these new challenges. A lack of quantum cryptography preparedness across even these non-military sectors could result in dire security consequences for Australia.

The Australian Government should consider emulating the forward-looking policy approach stipulated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC stresses the importance of equipping both military and non-military service providers with a plan toward implementing future, quantum-encrypted capabilities. The report urges: “Cryptography is indeed important for applications such as preventing interception of classified information, providing governmental services, protecting critical infrastructure, and in the military field. Banks and financial institutions, data centres providers, and players in the health sector can also be potential users. A home-grown industry mastering a technique that potentially guarantees future-proof communications security can hence be seen as an issue of national security.”

Chinese Collaboration

Chinese investment and influence plays an important economic and cultural role in Australia. This is a relationship that most parties have vowed to protect, enshrining it in trade and regional-relations policy. In the quantum race, however, there are concerns that Chinese collaboration on Australian quantum projects could present a national security risk. According to the aforementioned JRC report, this challenge has been identified and is being addressed by the European Commission through their quantum technologies flagship initiative.

The depth and scale of this issue has also been reported by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in their report, Picking Flowers, Making Honey. The title of the report is derived from a description by the People’s Liberation Army of Chinese-Western collaboration (especially in the Five Eyes countries), as “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China”. The report details how the PLA strategically deploys military researchers to universities in Western countries, obscuring their affiliation, and then brings them back to China so they can use the knowledge and information gleaned from their collaborations to further China’s own national technology development efforts. ASPI reports that this practice essentially aids Chinese military development, especially in the emerging field of quantum computing.

While it remains unclear whether or not the Australian government and domestic research institutions are informed of this practice, no action against this strategic transfer of knowledge has so far been taken. In fact, “Among universities in Five Eyes countries, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has published the most peer-reviewed literature in collaboration with PLA scientists.”. This information should concern the incoming Australian government, as UNSW is one of the leaders in Australian quantum computing development. If Australia seeks to remain a leader in quantum computing, this is an issue that must be tackled, albeit with a delicate approach that will not impact negatively on the many positive effects of Chinese interests in Australia. According to the ASPI report, many of those who participate in this practice presented with false records, a challenge that could be tackled simply with a higher level of scrutiny over the visa application process for incoming researchers collaborating on high-value projects.

Focus on the Development of Promising Environmental and Renewable Energy Applications

Climate change is a big-ticket item in the upcoming election, and one that may play a decisive role in inducing government change. Regardless, all parties have stated a commitment to investing in renewable energy. Quantum research outside of communication and computing presents promising potential for renewables. However, quantum applications in this space require an increased level of attention and support in order to develop. The Australian government should be investing in a far broader spectrum of emerging quantum applications, such as quantum dots, which could revolutionize the solar energy industry, and quantum tunnelling, which could help to capture and transfer wasted energy. These will be the green energies of tomorrow, presenting Australia with the unique opportunity to be a global leader in this space.

Quantum Business

Already, Australia has grown and attracted a number of powerful tech start-ups and international funding, bolstering its position as a hub for quantum research. There is momentum building to make Sydney the destination for quantum investment and to cement Australia’s place as the Silicon Valley of quantum development in the Southern hemisphere. Further focus on supporting the growth and development of this ecosystem could create a competitive advantage for Australia, boosting business investment and drawing the brightest minds from all over the world to solve quantum’s biggest challenges.

This, in turn, could allow the Australian quantum industry to broaden the scope of its focus, expanding to the areas of research and development mentioned above. Government investment in building the desirability of Australia as a world-class quantum destination would not only help to attract critical private sector investment but could also serve to attract the talent that is now sorely needed.

All contenders on Saturday’s ballot claim varying levels of commitment to prioritizing issues that the coming age of quantum computing will impact, such as cyber-security, defence, innovation and science, business, energy and environment, healthcare and regional relations. Yet no party on the election ballot has explicitly mentioned a dedicated policy for the further development and adoption of quantum technologies. Australia now has the chance to produce an agile national quantum policy that could complement and support some of the most important policy agendas already being pursued. It is clear that quantum technologies will carry a number of social and economic benefits, which will require the keen attention of government representatives in order to realize their potential. As demonstrated by the actions of Australia’s global competitors in quantum development, this can be done in a number of ways. We recommend a human-centric approach that weighs the threats and benefits of quantum development with a critical eye and seeks to not only maximize the benefit of these technologies for all Australians, but also presents an example for other countries to follow suit.

Quantum International Relations

Breaking the Internet: A Question of Timing


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Are we running out of time to save the internet? Image Credit: The Melting Watch, Salvador Dali, 1954.

Alexander Vipond

One of the most hyped topics in quantum computing is the potential for quantum computers to break the internet’s security protocols. It has been surmised that by running two theoretical algorithms on a quantum computer, Grover’s and Shor’s algorithms (designed by Lou Grover and Peter Shor in 1996 and 1994), one could break the cryptographic encryption standards of the internet.  Grover’s algorithm could be used to subvert HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) connections which authenticate websites as you browse the internet. Shor’s algorithm could break the RSA public key cryptosystem (named after Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman) which secures everything from your online bankcard transactions, to email and phone calls.

However, this all requires a powerful quantum computer yet to be invented. How many qubits would be necessary to run these algorithms? What scientific breakthroughs are necessary? How long will it take to build one? Well the National Academy of Sciences in the US released a report titled “Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects” which details not only the technical difficulties of racing to break the internet but the human challenges which lie in creating a secure post-quantum world.

The report presents two key findings.

One: Given the current state of quantum computing and recent rates of progress, it is highly unlikely that a quantum computer able to compromise RSA or any comparable discrete logarithmic public key cryptosystem will be built for a decade.

Two: Even if a quantum computer that can decrypt current cryptographic ciphers is more than decade off, the hazard of such a machine is high enough – and the time frame for transitioning to a new security protocol sufficiently long and uncertain – that the prioritisation of the development, standardisation and deployment of post quantum cryptography is critical for minimising the chance of a potential security and privacy disaster.

This demonstrates the severity of the risk that a powerful quantum computer poses despite the timeline towards its realisation.  

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US has a post quantum cryptography project which held submissions for new post quantum cryptosystems last year, with 69 proposals passing the first round. NIST has proposed a timeline of 2022-2024 in which a new draft standard for the world will be created. This leaves only a few years to whittle down and test these cryptosystems to find a new standard.

The key issues are time and human cooperation. As Adi Shamir noted at the last RSA cryptography panel, transforming a new cryptosystem into a widely adopted standard takes about 15 years. For both RSA and Elliptic Curve cryptography this was the case. This is partially a function of the small size of the cryptography community, numbering only in the thousands of people globally. This makes it difficult to test multiple cryptosystems effectively and NIST only has three years to choose a successor standard for a post-quantum world. So, it is highly likely they will rely on older tested standards and increase their bit size, while new cryptosystems will take decades longer to be tested.

Newer cryptosystems may well benefit from this time lag as researchers will be able to gain an increasingly clearer view of what quantum computers are actually capable of and refine quantum resistant cryptosystems appropriately as the technologies develop in tandem. If the current transition is managed carefully, global standards developed and adequate resources provided for the switchover, it could be possible to move safely into a post-quantum world.

This does however rely on two large unknown variables. The first is the rate of scientific breakthroughs to complete a quantum computer capable of attacking strong encryption. The second is the intent of the actor who procures the capability. If breakthroughs are made faster than the global community can adopt new standards, countries will be left exposed. As this type of research is often conducted in secret, the global community may not have easily identifiable progress markers to measure against. The second variable is more pernicious. If a company reaches the milestone first, it is likely to announce its victory and is unlikely to undermine the internet infrastructure that secures its profits. However, if a country reaches the milestone first, it may wish to attack and steal data for geopolitical advantage or commercial gain, and the world may not know until the first attack occurs.

This puts the race to break the internet into perspective. It is a decade’s long systemic risk that intertwines both human and technical problems into a game that represents the apex of trust, security and privacy in the world’s most important communications system.

Quantum International Relations

Visions of a Quantum Future: US takes the long view.


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Alexander Vipond

Unbeknownst to most, the White House held a summit on Quantum Information Science last week. It brought together 13 different government agencies from NASA and NIST, to the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as major industry players such Microsoft and Intel. The summit addressed calls by academia and industry for a coordinated, national approach to the research and development of quantum technologies.

The results of the summit were positive. The US National Science and Technology Council released a National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science (QIS) accompanied by announcements of $249 million in funding for 118 quantum information science projects through the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation. US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry stated that QIS represented the “the next frontier of the Information Age”.

The key focal points of progress that emerged from the summit were the promise to establish a formal national coordination body, possibly as an extension of the National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science, and a national strategy. The Whitehouse also made clear its intent to unite disparate quantum projects and researchers under a US quantum brand.

The summit emphasised taking a science first approach to a national strategy by connecting and investing in organisations that are seeking to solve grand scientific quantum challenges over the next ten years. To realise this, the government will provide the support to develop greater manufacturing facilities and infrastructure for scientists to conduct quantum research. They will also invest in educating a new quantum workforce with the introduction of quantum mechanics into primary and high school education and funding boosts for university programs.

The strategic effect of all this, is to scale up and sustain the rise of a larger QIS research industry which can discover new quantum applications and technologies. Not to mention compete against quantum rivals like China and Europe. While the announced funding is a step in the right direction, concrete policy plans built from the strategy are not scheduled for delivery until February next year.

Due to the continuing FBI investigations and political turmoil engulfing the current US administration (which is heading into US midterm elections this November) the final size and scope of a national strategy, its policies and levels of funding could be subject to a high degree of variability. This could even be positive given the Trump administration’s chaotic approach to funding science.

However, it is important that the national strategy is not delayed. The EU, China, UK and many other countries have already launched long-term national strategies with greater levels of government investment. For the US to remain a leader in the field and transfer that knowledge to the next generation visions of a quantum future must turn into actionable plans for leadership.

 

Quantum Applications, Quantum International Relations

Keeping up with quantum: The Pentagon’s JEDI contract


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DODJEDIImage via ZDNet

Gabriella Skoff

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) approach to the technology industry (namely, playing competing tech providers off against one other in order to procure the highest quality technology) has recently focused in on cloud technology. Early this year, the DoD announced plans to open bidding for a $10 billion contract for the single-award procurement of a new cloud strategy called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure program, or JEDI. This decision has received bountiful industry criticism. Arguments have focused largely on whether the contract’s single-award system and its precise requirements allow for competition between cloud technology providers or if it has been created to favor certain companies. But a potentially tragic flaw that few are hitting on is the fallibility of a cloud storage program being widely used for defense purposes in the context of other rapidly developing emerging technologies, namely quantum computing.

The decision to transition DoD IT infrastructure to a cloud-based system has indeed been made with emerging technologies in mind. Ellen Lord, Defense Undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, acknowledged that technologies “such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are fundamentally changing the character of war”, and that the use of these technologies “at scale and at a tempo relevant to warfighters requires significant computing and data storage in a common environment”. The updated cloud technology would store the government’s top defense secrets and enable military personnel working in remote locations to access critical information. These improvements are vital updates to the current defense IT infrastructure that will help the U.S. military to maintain a technological advantage, as per the Obama-era Third Offset Strategy.

However, between all the unfolding “races” to technological supremacy this IT transformation is set to accommodate, the predicted capabilities of quantum computing seem to have been critically overlooked.

It is well known that quantum computing will transform the security of cyberspace within the coming decades, but an approach to countering this threat is not noted anywhere in the JEDI contract. There are certainly companies and researchers working on quantum-secure cryptography through applications such as quantum key distribution, and even some research into the creation of a quantum blockchain—potential solutions to the quantum computing security threat. Surprisingly, however, these are not areas toward which the DoD seems to be looking.

Further concern stems from a lack of clarity around how much the DoD will come to rely on the single-source provider across all defense systems—will this be the first step towards an ultimate systems consolidation, centralizing cloud storage across the U.S. defense sector? If this is to be the case, it is even more critical that the utmost caution be taken now to ensure that the new system will be as secure as possible in the future.

Tech companies have been outspoken on this front, claiming that the use of multi-cloud technology would help to prevent security breaches and major outages. As IBM’s General Manager of the company’s federal business said: “No major commercial enterprise in the world would risk a single cloud solution, and neither should the Pentagon”.

The US DoD should be looking not one step ahead in its IT solutions, but five, even ten steps ahead. With the rapid pace at which technologies are being developed, there is a real need for foresight in this space. As Thomas Keelan of the Hudson Institute argues, in this cloud technology venture, the DoD is both missing a holistic approach to emerging technologies as well as limiting its own “crypto-agility”. The replacement of old systems is cumbersome and logistically challenging. But failing to roll out a new, quantum-secure system across such a large organization before the age of quantum computing dawns on us is both inefficient and leaves systems vulnerable to the threat of quantum capabilities. Capabilities which may very well not fall into the hands of the U.S. DoD first.