Quantum technology is still too young to warrant export controls, defense advisers warn
According to a new report from the RAND Corporation, the United States still has too much to gain from China and the rest of the world to control exports of key quantum science technologies.
The finding informed one of six policy recommendations the federally funded research and development center made in the report released this month. Sponsored within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the report provides a more nuanced examination of what is often simply described as competition between China and the United States. It also indicates the roles of various specific agencies as the issue progresses.
“General-purpose quantum computers are still many years away, and the field is dynamic enough that it’s very difficult to predict when the United States or any other country will get there,” said Edward Parker, a physicist at the RAND and lead author of the report. Nextgov. “While it’s helpful to understand who is currently ‘in front’, it’s even more important to make sure we’re properly prepared for quantum computers when they arrive – no matter where in the world that may be – and that we have strong defenses in some places to protect the security of our communications.
Other recommendations in the report include continued widespread funding for research and development – looking at where government can complement what is already being done by the private sector – oversight and protection of America’s leading quantum technology companies from cyber-intrusion, monitoring the financial health and ownership of quantum start-ups, and tracking the global movement of critical components, materials, workers, and quantum technology end products.
First, all federal cybersecurity personnel should be familiar with an effort the National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading to identify new cryptographic algorithms for agencies to implement. Cybersecurity professionals expect that using different kinds of math to create the algorithms will make them resistant to a quantum computer that will eventually work fast enough to decode the encryption formulas currently protecting all digital information that people and governments want to keep it secret.
RAND Physicist Michael Vermeer Updated Nextgov on that front, and reacted to a more recent push by the Biden administration for agencies to implement the new algorithms before NIST had even fully decided what they should be.
Under a National Security Council memorandum released in January, the National Security Agency is soon to issue guidelines for agencies to modernize their cryptography. The memo also provides binding operational directive authority to the NSA, which has expressed a preference for codes that use so-called network multiplication.
Vermeer was encouraged by the NSC memo and other developments noted in a recent review the NSA published of its cybersecurity work in 2021, which notes that the agency “delivered the first set of cryptographic devices update [such as random number generators, for example] to protect national security systems from potential quantum computing attacks.
The NSA review “tells me that 1) the NSA has already chosen some cryptographic implementations that they believe are robust against quantum attacks,” he said, “and 2) fast implementation means which she probably takes seriously the possibility of catching now – later exploit attacks against the NSS, where an adversary could capture encrypted data and hold it until they possess a quantum computer capable of decrypting it .
“All these [actions] together indicate a true federal priority to urgently address the national cybersecurity risk posed by quantum computing,” Vermeer said, also noting the role of the Department of Homeland Security in working with private sector owners and operators of critical infrastructures to move to post-quantum cryptography.
Parker and Vermeer explained the enigmatic details of quantum science – which relies on manipulating often subatomic particles like photons with stimuli like lasers to transmit information – and their connection to federal cybersecurity policy – alongside Charles Tahan, the administration’s top quantum official – on Nextgov’s Critical Update Podcast.
There is certainly an element of competition to consider in shaping quantum technology policy. The winner could not only know all the secrets of others, but he could also use the exponential speed of “quantum computing” to perform all kinds of calculations and discover revolutionary pharmaceuticals. Another set of applications related to “quantum sensing” could make all the difference for self-driving cars or those trying to predict and protect people from volcanic eruptions. The field of “quantum communications” could eventually change the internet itself, promising to make it virtually unbreakable with quantum encryption methods.
The RAND report uses metrics such as the quality and quantity of research and patents produced in each of these three areas – quantum computing, sensing and communications – to measure the progress of the United States in technology. quantum compared to China and other countries. He revealed that the two countries are generally neck and neck with other governments developing the technology. Although China is clearly ahead in quantum communications, the United States and Europe are clearly ahead in quantum sensing.
About quantum computing, Parker said Nextgov“The United States is still the global technical leader in quantum technology, but that lead has narrowed significantly over the past year.”
“The United States was the only country to demonstrate true prototype quantum computers, but that’s no longer the case,” he said, referring to developments in China. “The global quantum technology leadership landscape is becoming increasingly complicated – for example, one of the UK’s leading companies and one of the US’s leading companies recently merged into a new company headquartered in the two countries.”
In late 2018, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security proposed that quantum technologies—specifically those for computing and sensing, as well as quantum encryption (used in quantum communication)—be added to a list of emerging and foundational technologies that the government should consider blocking US exports because of their “dual-use” nature. The term refers to technology that can be used for commercial and military purposes.
But quantum science is young enough that major competing nations could operate faster if they are allowed to collaborate and feed off each other, especially in the field of quantum computing, according to the report, which also notes that “no currently demonstrated quantum computing or communication technologies have immediate defense applications.” The report supports export controls to advance quantum sensing technology, which it says BIS is already doing.
Commerce and Defense are both part of a powerful interagency group – the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS – which makes decisions related to export controls and is also the wheelhouse for the type of financial and other resource follow-up activities recommended by the report. The report suggests complicated considerations for CFIUS agency heads, including those in Treasury, Justice, State and others.
“Export controls would prematurely limit the exchange of scientific ideas, slowing technological progress. Having a broad base of experts (including outside the United States) experimenting with early-stage prototypes could accelerate the discovery of useful defense-related applications,” Parker and colleagues write. “Additionally, export controls could threaten the financial health of small US start-ups that are advancing the state of the art in quantum technology, as it is not certain that there will be enough of domestic demand to sustain them.”
On the government’s research and development front, the Department of Energy controls a significant portion of about $700 million that the agencies were collectively on track to spend to advance quantum technology over the past year. fiscal year 2021, at the time of writing the report. The RAND report suggests the government should broadly diversify its investments in the areas of quantum technology it has examined, including quantum communications, where China is leading the way.