Quantum Q&A

Hello and happy Thursday! This week marks the 62nd anniversary of the first working laser, demonstrated by physicist Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Labs in Malibu, California. Cool fact: Maiman later benefited very practically from his invention when he underwent laser surgery in 2000. Speaking of lasers, did you know that they’re based on the quantum mechanical process of “stimulated emission?” Yeah, me either, until the Ol ‘Google machine served that factoid up after searching for “cool laser facts.” (This is how the sausage is made, folks).  

Anyway, the Biden administration is taking two new steps to advance American quantum computing and I thought I’d provide a “question and answer” primer on the science and why it has such significant national security implications. This stuff is basically magic but if you hang with me, I promise you’ll be fascinated.  

“Ok nerd-boy, get on with it. What’s ‘quantum mechanics’?” 

Quantum mechanics is the governing hypothesis of how nature works at the level of atoms and subatomic particles like photons. The word “quantum” refers to the notion that all energy, light, and matter is composed of discrete units, or quanta. 

“Uh-huh, go on.” 

You see there are two especially important phenomena within quantum mechanics that differentiate it from classical physics and that appear to hold the greatest promise for future innovation. The first phenomenon is particle superposition

Classic physics says two things can’t be in the same place at the same time or be completely present in more than one place at a time. Quantum physics, however, says, “rules are for losers,” and allows objects to exist in two distinct states simultaneously—this state is called superposition. Put simply: Superposition means that a quantum object can be “this” and “that,” “there” and “here,” or “down” and “up” at the same time. Confused? Good, that means you are getting it. But, as kooky as this sounds, it appears much of the world is held together by bodies in superposition and it’s the only theory that explains things like lasers and photosynthesis. 

“What’s the second phenomenon?” 

Entanglement. This is when two or more quantum objects become linked so that any measurement of one immediately decides the state of the others—regardless of the distance between them. It is as if there are two spinning quarters on opposite sides of the universe and whenever one is stopped from spinning, the other also stops and displays the same value (e.g., heads or tails) as the first. 

“So, what do these two phenomena have to do with computers?” 

Great question. Computer scientists are making a lot of progress in applying quantum mechanics to next-generation computers. By using superposition and entanglement, for example, we’re building computers that use qubits rather than just bits. Whereas bits are the “1s” and “0s” you always hear about when people talk about code, qubits use superposition to stand for a much broader range of states, including negative values. When you take these more versatile qubits and entangle them, you exponentially increase the computational power and speed of a computer. 

“How much more powerful and speedier are you talking about?” 

Well, in 2019 Google claimed to have conducted a calculation on a quantum computer in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most advanced conventional supercomputer at the time about 10,000 years to complete. So yeah, much, much more powerful and speedier. 


Yeah, and this has big implications. For example, governments around the world use encryption to protect their most sensitive systems and information. Right now, the fastest U.S. supercomputer would take more than 1 billion years to crack the world’s most advanced encryption. But, based on what we’re seeing in modern quantum computer science, it’s possible a quantum computer could crack this same encryption in seconds. 

Beyond the encryption risks, quantum computing has other important national security applications. The U.S. military is trying to use “quantum sensing” to provide more precise navigation, even in areas where GPS is denied. Similarly, quantum technologies could be used to detect stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines, or a foreign adversaries’ use of chemical or biological weapons.  

There’s lots of potential cool stuff that could be done with quantum computers, and we haven’t even imagined most of it. But one thing we must be thinking about is the risk of “quantum surprise,” the possibility that another nation could make this breakthrough before we do. That would be very, very, very bad. 

“So, what’s the state of the race for quantum computing?” 

It’s complicated because there’s no clear finish line. Quantum computing has so many different forms and applications, that there are tons of different groups working on different parts of the problem. It’s not like the race to build a nuclear bomb or to walk on the moon because realizing this aim requires a full ecosystem of independent actors. We can, however, understand some things about the race. 

For example, in terms of raw capability, private companies appear to be leading the way. On the U.S. side, Google, Honeywell, Hughes Research, IBM, Intel, Lockheed-Martin, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, and a handful of quantum startups are at the forefront of much of the quantum computing revolution, often in partnership with American universities. 

Quantum-specific venture capital funds like Quantum Valley Investments and Quantum Wave have been pouring financial support into promising startups, some of which support ambitious goals to leapfrog major companies altogether in the race to build advanced quantum computing capabilities. Countries like Canada and the United Kingdom also boast a number of potentially high-impact startups in quantum. In China, tech giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent were initially slow to break into quantum computing but have been making gains in the field. Chinese startups, often supported by government-backed VC firms, are also competitive. 

But governments are also focused on the challenge. Governments around the world have pledged an estimated $22.5 billion in public funding to quantum research and development in the coming years. The governments that have pledged $ 1 billion or more include India, the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and China. Canada, Russia, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, and Korea have also publicly dedicated tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to similar ends, and the pan-EU “European Quantum Flagship” has been granted a budget of $1.1 billion.  

The fact that China’s governmental budget purportedly accounts for about 44 percent of total international public spending on one of the most consequential new technologies for national security interests is a concerning reality. And although its Jiuzhang quantum computer is highly limited in the breadth of its capabilities, its narrow success suggests that the country is making considerable progress in quantum development. The country’s universities and companies are steadily increasing their pace of patent filing in quantum technologies, having already doubled the total number of patents filed by the United States in the sector. In quantum communication and cryptography specifically, China’s patent output dwarfs that of the U.S., and in 2018, China filed more quantum patents that the US, Japan, Korea, and the EU combined. 

China’s ambitions are clear. As leading quantum scientist Jian-Wei Pan explained, “With modern information science, China has been a learner and a follower. Now, with quantum technology, if we try our best we can be one of the main players.” But the national security implications of a world in which China pulls ahead in quantum technology are concerning. As Elsa B. Kania and John K. Costello state in their 2018 report for the Center for a New American Security: 

China’s advances in quantum science could impact the future military and strategic balance, perhaps even leapfrogging traditional U.S. military-technological advantages. Although it is difficult to predict the trajectories and timeframes for their realization, these dual-use quantum technologies could “offset” key pillars of U.S. military power, potentially undermining critical technological advantages associated with today’s information-centric ways of war, epitomized by the U.S. model. 

“Ok, but didn’t you say the Biden administration was taking some new actions—what are they?” 

The administration has issued an executive order (EO) and a national security memorandum (NSM) aimed at boosting U.S. efforts on quantum computing and its attendant cybersecurity implications. The EO establishes a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee that will include, “the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (Director) or the Director’s designee and not more than 26 members, appointed by the President, who are United States citizens representative of industry, universities, and Federal laboratories, and who are qualified to provide advice and information on QIS and technology research, development, demonstrations, standards, education, technology transfer, commercial application, or national security and economic concerns.” The accompanying NSM focuses on security: 

“This memorandum outlines my Administration’s policies and initiatives related to quantum computing. It identifies key steps needed to maintain the Nation’s competitive advantage in quantum information science (QIS), while mitigating the risks of quantum computers to the Nation’s cyber, economic, and national security. It directs specific actions for agencies to take as the United States begins the multi-year process of migrating vulnerable computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography (bold emphasis added). A classified annex to this memorandum addresses sensitive national security issues.” 

“So, what does all of this mean, Klon? Should I be optimistic, scared, what?” 

Don’t be scared—quantum science and quantum computing specifically is amazing and could make our individual and collective lives better in countless ways. Having computers that are powerful and fast enough to model the subatomic world—instead of us simply guessing about what’s happening at this level of nature—could break through barriers in medicine development, energy storage, and virtually every field of science. Imagine drugs specifically tailored for your cancer and your body. Or being able to power an entire city with a single battery that can fit inside of a tractor trailer. Or maybe even the ability to teleport like they do in Star Trek (ok, that last one is far-fetched, but who knows?). 

But precisely because quantum computers will be so powerful, we also must take very seriously the risk of quantum surprise and bad guy use of quantum computers. Overall, I think we’re doing well in this regard, but we can’t let up. China’s advancements in quantum concern me (shocker) and we certainly cannot simply assume the superiority of American efforts. 

To conclude, you are going to hear more and more about quantum science and quantum computers, and I hope this quick Q&A will allow you to better appreciate the awe-inspiring prospects of these innovations as well as their sobering national security implications. For me, this stuff is the epitome of what Arthur C. Clark meant, when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week!

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