Quantum computing: The new moonshot in the cyber space race

In 2016, China launched Micius, the world’s first quantum communications enabled satellite. For some, that launch eerily echoed the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in 1957, which caught the United States off guard and spurred a decades-long contest to regain and maintain global technological and military supremacy.

The parallel wasn’t lost on the Chinese. Jian-Wei Pan, the lead researcher on the Micius project, hailed the start of “a worldwide quantum space race.”

Indeed, the race to develop quantum technologies is an all-out sprint, if not a marathon, and quantum computing is gearing up to be this century’s moonshot. The U.S. and China are investing heavily in quantum projects, and they are joined by organizations and businesses like IBM, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba and Lockheed Martin.

Because this new computing paradigm will enable a quantum leap – pun intended – in processing power, whoever masters it will cement their supremacy across almost every key technological domain. Not only will viable quantum computers represent a landmark achievement, they will also carry seismic geopolitical implications—especially in the critical domains of information security and cyberwarfare.

Computing’s quantum leap

Traditional computers process information as bits, with all computation carried out in a binary language of 1s and 0s. Electronical current is either flowing through a transistor, or it isn’t. However, at the quantum level, these binary states no longer hold. Quantum superposition means a subatomic particle can exist in two states at once, so a qubit – a unit of quantum information – could run certain computations on numerous possibilities simultaneously. Binary bits scale computation in powers of two, but qubits can theoretically outmatch this complexity by orders of magnitude.

These unique properties will enable quantum computers to crack some previously insurmountable problems with relative ease. Most applications, like modelling complex chemistry to devise new drugs or simulating intricate particle physics to investigate the early universe, promise nothing but upside. But quantum computers may also have the destabilizing ability to break the math underlying much of today’s data encryption. While scientists have long recognized this possibility, recent advances in quantum computing are bringing this cryptographic “Q-day” inexorably closer.

Bracing for Q-Day

Long before attempting to build practical quantum computers, scientists wanted to be sure quantum computing was even useful. A breakthrough came in 1994, when MIT professor Peter Shor devised an algorithm that proved the utility of a quantum computer. Shor showed that given a relatively modest number of qubits, his algorithm could handily crack certain complex factorization problems which were virtually unsolvable for traditional computers. These hard-to-solve problems served as the foundation for many widely used cryptographic functions.

Everything from web traffic to eCommerce to blockchain relies on something called public-key cryptography, which allows users to encrypt data with a shared public key but decrypt it with their own distinct private key. The public and private key are mathematically connected in a way that’s easy to compute in one direction but almost impossible to reverse—almost impossible for conventional computers, at least. Using Shor’s algorithm, quantum computers could crack these codes with ease.

While fully workable quantum computers remain currently out of reach, progress has accelerated. For nations already weathering a storm of state-sponsored cyberattacks, the threat of codebreaking quantum computers looms large. Much as nuclear weapons upended the calculus of conventional warfare, capable quantum computers will redraw the lines of cyberwarfare.

Vying for superposition

When it comes to quantum computing innovation in the private sector, American companies are leading the pack but still have quite a way to go. In January, IBM unveiled its latest quantum computer. At just 20 qubits, the IBM Q System One was impressive but far from revolutionary. Other American tech heavyweights like Google and Intel are funding similar research, and while the results are promising, “quantum supremacy” still lies beyond the horizon.

To help foster innovation, governments have also stepped in. While the U.S. administration signed the National Quantum Initiative Act in December, providing $1.2 billion in quantum research funding over five years, Beijing’s efforts to promote quantum technologies are unmatched.

In 2016, China’s 13th five-year plan identified quantum computing as a key strategic initiative and authorized a quantum “megaproject” to that end. Soon after, Beijing finalized plans for a $1 billion national quantum lab which, when completed in 2020, will be one of the most advanced in the world.

To put these numbers into perspective, the entire US budget for quantum research in 2016 was just $200 million, or one-fifth the cost of a single Chinese project in the field. All told, China’s estimated tens of billions in quantum commitments far outpace Washington’s more modest outlays.

Given the dire consequences of falling behind, any race to develop quantum computing should simultaneously brace for the eventuality of a post-quantum imbalance.

Post-quantum cryptography

Although quantum computing remains years away, experts are urging new measures to transition to post-quantum cryptography. Why now? Transitioning to new cryptographic standards can take years; moreover, adversarial intelligence agencies may already be gathering troves of data to decrypt once quantum technology arrives. The NSA has called for the phasing out of all vulnerable encryption systems and NIST is administering a nationwide contest to accelerate innovation in post-quantum cryptography.

Fortunately, quantum-proof cryptographic systems already exist. One such system, lattice-based encryption, promises many ancillary benefits. Unlike most public-key systems, lattice-based encryption links public and private keys with mathematics that are difficult to crack even for quantum computers. Additionally, it’s the only post-quantum encryption option that is also fully homomorphic.

Fully homomorphic encryption allows computation on encrypted data without ever exposing the data itself. This is especially important since another major front of the cyberspace race is advancing machine learning and artificial intelligence, where improvements rely on analyzing massive data-sets.

China’s massive population and lax privacy regulations already give it an AI edge, as more people and fewer restrictions means more accessible data. For the US to compete—and protect its citizens’ rights to privacy—future data encryption schemes must protect data not just during transmission and storage, but also during analysis. Lattice-based homomorphic encryption strikes an ideal balance between ensuring post-quantum security, while not sacrificing computational utility.

The quantum moonshot

America’s “Sputnik Moment” was a wake-up call, marshalling the American military and government into action. Just one year later, President Eisenhower created both DARPA and NASA. The former would lay the foundations of the internet and the latter would send a man to the moon. American innovation has been riding this momentum since. But decades after regaining and maintaining technological superiority, imposing challengers are beginning to emerge.

Quantum computing is an emblematic battleground. Mastering such cutting-edge technology will not only garner prestige, it could very well help determine the global balance of power. In short, quantum computing is this century’s moonshot—and now (as then), its outcome is about far more than national pride. It’s nothing less than a matter of national security.

Rina Shainski, Executive Chairwoman, Duality Technologies.