Image via The Intercept

Gabriella Skoff

In anticipation of the fifth annual Q Symposium, ‘The Quantum Race:  Parallels, Promises, Perils’, Gabriella Skoff considers the drivers and obstacles to ‘quantum supremacy’.

Quantum supremacy is the point at which quantum computers will surpass the capabilities of classical computers, outperforming them at any given task. While quantum supremacy refers to a technological phenomenon, it can be argued that this is a race that is also being run on a political playing field, with the United States and China battling for an advantage. However, the biggest names in quantum technology today– IBM, Microsoft, Google– are not the names of governments but of technology companies, one of which will likely be the first to succeed, at least in the United States, in creating a fully functioning quantum computer. The race is not only profit-driven:  Quantum, like many other technologies (think: AI and facial recognition) is both a consumer and a defence-coveted goal. In the United States, the Department of Defence (DoD) relies heavily on the momentum of Silicon Valley’s booming venture capitalist culture to achieve quantum supremacy before its competitors do. But will this relationship of dependence be a disadvantage in the long run?

While the relationship between the United States DoD and Silicon Valley reaches back to the Second World War, the DoD has only recently come to fully entrust the private sector as its technological powerhouse. Since the early 2000’s, as Ash Carter’s predictions about technology and commercialization espoused in his paper entitled ‘Keeping the technological edge’ have been realized, the DoD has focused on maintaining close ties with the commercial sector. Carter argued that by using an approach that “works with rather than against market forces, leveraging commercialization to secure the needs of defence”, the growing, independent, “industrial and technology base” would be able to act as a vehicle, enabling the U.S. military to “be the world’s fastest adapter and adopter of commercial technology into defence systems”. When Carter became the U.S. Secretary of Defence in 2015, he was able to put these ideas into action, eventually with great success.

While Carter’s system has so far allowed the DoD unprecedented access to the newest and best technologies, lending itself to a definitive strategic advantage over competing world powers, there are several issues with regard to its application in the quantum race that should be explored.

One salient issue is the prevalence of “technological entanglement”. Carter argues that integral to maintaining technological supremacy is the U.S. military’s ability to deny access to and information about new technologies to competing powers. However, the technology community now largely responsible for innovation in quantum is highly collaborative and mobile, functioning in a globalized economy.

China, the United State’s main competitor in the quantum race, has taken full advantage of this weakness in the American system by pursuing strategic partnerships between Chinese firms with military connections and U.S. tech companies. This poses a unique problem to a system where those creating military technologies traditionally did so in the service of the U.S. national interest as DoD employees. Today, the intellectual capital associated with the creation of quantum technology is dangerously fungible.

Unlike the United States, China has taken the responsibility of achieving quantum supremacy unto itself, investing US$10 billion in building a new National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, set to open in 2020. Comparatively, U.S. government spending for quantum research is now set at US$1.275 billion from 2019 to 2023.

Another cause for concern is the recent stirrings of protest in the tech community, with regard to large defence contracts. Earlier this year, Google made headlines when about a dozen of its employees resigned in protest to the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a DoD funded project developing AI surveillance for drone footage. Over 3,000 Google employees took a moral stance on the issue, signing a letter addressed to Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, which eventuated in the company’s decision to not renew the contract.

More recently, Microsoft employees had their own moment of revolt over Azure Government, the facial recognition software used by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in the forced separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. This also resulted in an open letter, signed by over 100 employees, which stated: “We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

While the number of vocal protestors within these tech giants may be just a drop in the pond, these examples should cause the DoD pause for thought about the loyalty required of its industrial and technology base to win the quantum race. Lest we forget that the booming creative, entrepreneurial tech culture we see today is a product of the anti-war counter-culture of the 1960’s.

Defence contracts are inherently political, and above all else, it is critical for the DoD to keep in mind that tech companies are not pursuing quantum computing for reasons of patriotic allegiance. Ultimately, the success of the current system of reliance on this community hinges on the operationalising of defence projects as a viable business model for tech companies, whilst ensuring there are systems in place to assure that the technology created will be responsibly regulated.