Quantum Conquests Require Resource Commitments
The global communications race is heating up, but who’s winning?
The potential geopolitical consequences of quantum communications will result in clear asymmetries in both knowledge and confidentiality of information. Countries whose data can be protected through quantum communication techniques will have a significant information advantage, a situation that would have important, albeit hard to predict, effects on geopolitical developments.
Quantum technologies are developing fast and are set to deliver considerable progress across many fields—from medical research and chemistry to remote sensing. Countries ahead in developing this technology stand to make substantial economic gains, which could also result in growing influence. Much like the development of the silicon chip or the Internet, nations at the forefront of emerging capabilities experienced huge economic development throughout the 20th century. Leadership in quantum technology may well have a similar impact in the economic pecking order for the 21st century.
Great advances in quantum technology are common in the United States. In November 2017, IBM announced that it had created a quantum computer that handles 50 quantum bits known as qubits. This milestone means that even though it’s a fragile and finicky machine—the quantum state is preserved for only 90 microseconds at a time—it can perform calculations that are all but impossible on a traditional supercomputer.
While this is clearly a great achievement, the United States is at risk of falling behind the international community in other quantum technologies. Consequently, the country could find itself behind the curve on advancing the next generation of secure communications in quantum key distribution (QKD) technology.
Quantum computers take advantage of the properties of quantum mechanics in different ways than quantum encryption or communication. However, they pose a threat to encryption because they will be able to perform enough calculations per second to break asymmetric—or public key—cryptography. This type of cybersecurity is the basis for many widely used security protocols, including the one used to ensure secure Internet connections.
Currently, China appears to be the world leader in the development of quantum-based technology on several different fronts. It not only has built a secure QKD communications network spanning 1,200 miles but also successfully launched and demonstrated the use of a quantum communications satellite. The country is already indicating the desire to go further by investing $10 billion in the development of the world’s largest dedicated quantum research center.
In September 2017, China announced it had completed the world’s first commercial quantum network in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. The network uses photons to send data using the principles of quantum mechanics. This capability results in much more secure communication because, among other reasons, it’s impossible to eavesdrop on without immediately alerting legitimate users. In the first two weeks, up to 200 government and official users could use the network, but then it was then linked to a much larger network of fiber optic cables connecting Beijing and Shanghai, greatly expanding the user base.
China’s quantum push has clearly been planned in detail with different pieces fitting into place at just the right times. In August 2016, a year before the ground network went live, China had launched Micius, the world’s first quantum communications satellite. In June 2017, the country employed the satellite to communicate across a record-smashing 745 miles using entangled quantum particles, which act in unison irrespective of the distance between the particles. Utilizing a satellite in this way enables the signal to be transmitted securely to the satellite via the entangled photons that can be shared anywhere in the world.
To demonstrate this capability, the head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences used the satellite to hold a videoconference with an Austrian scientist 4,630 miles away. Importantly, as soon as the Beijing–Shanghai quantum network was complete, it was connected to the satellite system so the systems are interoperable.
Not resting on its quantum laurels, the Chinese government recently announced it would create the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, the world’s largest dedicated quantum research center. The goal is to have the center up and working within two years.
China’s quantum leap ahead of the rest of the world is evidence of the possibilities that open when powerful leaders back scientists who have a logically progressive plan and determined governments commit significant resources toward scientific developments important to society and business.
Europeans, particularly Austrians and the Swiss, were off to a pretty good start in quantum computing in the early 2000s. For example, in 2004, Austrian scientists demonstrated QKD, sending half of a pair of entangled photons on a nearly 5,000-foot journey through fiber optic cable in 90 seconds. When both the photon that traveled and the one that remained were measured, they matched.
At the time, University of Vienna physicist Anton Zeilinger, the scientist in charge of the project, said he hoped “all problems of implementation will be solved within three years.” However, Zeilinger added that the road to solving these problems has been longer than initially thought.
Throughout the early 2000s, the Austrians were joined by the Swiss in incremental developments of QKD. One project included transmitting ballots from one Swiss canton to the capital during the 2007 national election and implementing the world’s first QKD-protected computer network at a conference in Vienna.
The problems of implementation were clearly a little more difficult than Zeilinger had initially thought, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. Between 1996 and 2016, the EU invested approximately $640 million in quantum research. In 2016, the EU recommitted to quantum studies by announcing the 2018 launch of a €1 billion ($1.2 billion) flagship initiative on quantum technologies, especially quantum secure communication and quantum computing. While this renewed emphasis could very well put Europe in second place behind China in the quantum race, other contenders remain.
The United States also was setting quantum records in the early 2000s. In 2002, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrated the ability to transmit a photon through free space more than 10 kilometers. U.S. researchers also set a QKD distance record using fiber optic cable in 2007.
Japan, too, has had successes in the QKD realm, creating a QKD test network in Tokyo in 2010 and demonstrating its own ability to transmit secure communications from a satellite to a groundstation in July 2017.
All of these efforts have pushed the boundaries of what can be done using quantum science, but they would be even more effective with a more coordinated, sustained effort. Some places are more coordinated than others. For instance, in 2014 the UK established four quantum hubs to focus on sensors and the study of measurement, enhanced imaging, networked information technologies and communications technologies. These hubs represent the largest, most public part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, which the government has funded but does not direct.
Each hub is led by a different UK university that coordinates the participation of a variety of stakeholders, including other universities, corporate entities and a selection of agencies from different government levels. The organizational infrastructure and funding have resulted in an increase in quantum research developments in the UK.
Australia also has coordinated quantum research efforts underway. Its focus isn’t as single-minded as the push for quantum science in China. The country’s efforts aim at strengthening cybersecurity in general; however, the coordination principle is the same.
For example, the Australian Cyber Security Centre is an intergovernmental and interagency hub responsible for coordinating cybersecurity efforts throughout the Australian government. In addition, the government is funding another network layer at the university level. The Academic Centres of Cyber Security Excellence established at two prestigious universities will foster student engagement in the field of cybersecurity and help create a community of future cybersecurity leaders.
Also, on the quantum front, the Australian government has put its weight behind QKD research. The Defence Innovation Hub, part of the Australian Department of Defence, is a research grant aimed at continuing to grow QKD capabilities and extend it to free space communications.
A growing consensus of federal agency as well as state and local government policy makers indicates the United States needs to invest and upgrade its physical infrastructure. However, upgrading the U.S. communications infrastructure to enable quantum capabilities may be even more critical than improving roads and bridges and should be part of the overall investment conversation.
One way to strengthen U.S. efforts is to pool resources and create, as Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman and others have recently suggested, a quantum version of the Manhattan Project, which helped develop the atomic bomb in World War II. Information on research about QKD and other areas of quantum communication and cryptography would be shared between corporations and the federal government and between the U.S. and close allies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Individuals in industry and academia can significantly move scientific advances further forward; however, a central entity can support a sustained and coordinated approach to tackle today’s large scientific challenges. Government support was needed to tackle enormous projects such as landing on the moon or eliminating smallpox—and now ensuring communications are free from prying eyes. China certainly seems to be proving that in a big way, but it’s not too late for all countries to catch up.
Jane Melia is vice president of strategic business development at QuintessenceLabs, a provider of quantum cybersecurity solutions and maker of quantum random number generators.