Owning the Quantum Keys to the Kingdom

China recently made an unprecedented advance in quantum computing that for many signaled China’s growing techno-strategic clout. This coincides with other recent technological advances by China, including a quantum satellite and communications network that had not been achieved elsewhere.

In response, last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to keep the United States in the battle for global computing supremacy. This is long overdue, and more must be done. The United States and our allies have a strong interest in ensuring authoritarian states like Russia or China do not beat us to such mastery, but rather the free world — where the technology will be used for innovation and protection, not for control and suppression — gets the early lead and stays ahead for the long haul.

And so a modern space race is on. This one, however, is not in space at all but rather involves a competition to master a quirk of physics allowing subatomic particles to exist simultaneously in two separate states. The technology is quantum, a capability which could completely transform computing and usher in important political, social, economic, and military change. And unlike the space race of the 1950s and 60s, this one involves at least 20 countries.

Relevant policy always lags behind the latest technology, and this is especially true in the digital era. However, this lag varies significantly by country. In fact, the recent release of the U.S. government’s National Strategic Overview of Quantum Information Science is arguably a little late to the race. Although its recent release did not garner much attention, the race to quantum will likely transform key organizations and could induce significant geopolitical shifts. As Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) correctly noted, “[t]he impact of quantum on our national defense will be tremendous … [t]he question is whether the United States and its allies will be ready.”

The U.S. intelligence community and democratic partners increasingly understand the necessity to ensure the technology stays in allied hands. Though there are widely differing opinions on when any nation will be able to exploit quantum capabilities at scale, there is broad agreement about the potential threat to U.S. national security interests – namely that a functioning quantum computer could break the strongest encryption communications currently used by the U.S. military and intelligence community. Conversely, perfection of the technology could also create future “hack-proof” communications through the use of quantum key distribution.

The U.S. quantum strategy is an important step in the right direction, and joins the National Cyber Strategy and the National Quantum Initiative Act in highlighting the prioritization of the potential threats and opportunities associated with quantum computing. Of course, the quantum strategy comes at a time when other countries are already investing heavily in quantum computing and related technologies.

China’s quest for “quantum hegemony” is a core factor, with China outspending the United States in quantum 30-to-1 and pushing for standards and norms that are contrary to our approach to achieving a secure and open internet. Simultaneously, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 combine to provide the infrastructure, legal framework and internet guidelines that may shape the future of the internet. American leadership is essential to preserve and support the potential of a free, open and secure internet.

China’s approach leverages its state-managed economy, enabling a whole-of-government and -economy approach to develop quantum technology. This extends into foreign acquisition as well, targeting foreign investments in strategic technologies, including quantum computing.

In recent years, U.S. policymakers have responded to the threat by increasing quantum research funding and cracking down on next-generation technology transfers by strengthening the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and broadening its jurisdictional mandate. And while some of the larger publicly held companies may have limited their investments in quantum, U.S. venture capital firms have been willing to take greater risk than normal to fund startup technologies in this space, and tech companies of all sizes have started to become more cognizant of the potential repercussions of tech transfers.

China’s quest for quantum dominance raises serious national and economic security concerns about protecting American and allied intellectual property in quantum and a wide range of adjacent technologies. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted that those who master next-generation technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing will be the “ruler[s] of the world.”

If we fail to invest and prepare for the very real societal and national security changes that quantum is likely to trigger, we are likely to repeat the failures of the last two decades’ information revolution, including our inability to fully comprehend how paradigm-shifting technologies can be both a national and economic boon and simultaneously manipulated by our adversaries.

Andy Keiser, a former deputy national security senior adviser to President Donald Trump’s transition team and senior adviser to the House Intelligence Committee, is principal at Navigators Global and a fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University. Andrea Limbago, previously a computational social scientist at the Department of Defense, is chief social scientist at Virtru, a data security company.

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