U.S. intelligence sounds the alarm on the quantum gap with China

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — For years, quantum computing, which leverages the difficult, and, to many, spooky science of quantum mechanics, has been a subject mostly of interest to the technical elite. Yet as scientists and now policymakers point to the rapid progress that China is making in the field, it’s the intelligence community that appears to be the most alarmed.

“Our folks in the intelligence community are completely worried about this,” said Will Hurd, a Republican congressman from Texas and a former CIA officer who has criticized President Trump for his failure to defend the nation’s spy agencies.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration hosted an event focused on quantum science with major companies in attendance, and has demonstrated an appetite for confronting China on issues like trade and economic espionage. Yet researchers working in the field argue that much more needs to be done in advance of China’s progress.

For a great majority of the population, the science behind quantum computing is difficult to comprehend. A quantum computer, like a standard computer, encodes information as bits to process information, but it does so by manipulating the physical properties of the quantum bits, or qubits, allowing them to store and process an exponentially larger amount of data in a far shorter time period.

“Quantum computing is not only a new way to do computing, but is really a new transformation in technology,” said Alessandro Curioni, IBM’s vice president in Europe and the director of an IBM Research Lab in Zurich. “It will make problems that were previously unsolvable … practical.”

The most practical application, and the one of concern to the national security community, regards encryption. However, Curioni says it might take thousands or even a million qubits to break modern encryption keys, a development that could be “decades away.”

Google unveiled its groundbreaking 72-qubit quantum computer, Bristlecone, in March 2018, though scientists are still working to prove today’s product is faster than a modern supercomputer.

Yet if quantum computing’s applications are realized, as many scientists working in the field claim they will be, the national security implications are numerous.

One of the biggest and most widely circulated concerns over China’s quantum computing work is that it could enable powerful new machines to break through the layer of security protecting online transactions around the world, thereby exposing highly sensitive information.

According to one recently retired national security official focused on emerging threats presented by advanced technology, China is on track to be 20 years ahead of the United States in the not-too-distant future. Another national security official said the United States is currently scrambling to defend itself, hoping to find foolproof ways to protect its everyday communications in the worst case.

Congress appears to be taking note. “China is eating our lunch on quantum,” said one congressional staffer. Lawmakers tasked with intelligence and national security issues will be focusing on China in coming months, hoping to inspire quicker progress on the U.S. side.

“A powerful quantum computer will be dangerous to our connected world,” said one senior national security official. “It’s not too early by any stretch to be thinking about quantum resistance,” or ways to defend ourselves.

Yet sufficiently powerful quantum computer capable of solving unthinkably complex equations and shattering some forms of modern encryption may still be years or even decades away.

And critics of the field argue there’s also quantum hype, since no one yet has been able to prove they’ve built a quantum computer with practical applications.

Writing last month in IEEE Spectrum, theoretical physicist Mikhail Dyakonov described quantum computing as “something of a self-perpetuating arms race.” Noting that practical applications for quantum computers, even in the more optimistic scenarios, are a long way off, Dyakonov offered an even more pessimistic assessment of a quantum timeline. “I belong to a tiny minority that answers, ‘Not in the foreseeable future,’” he wrote.

Even those who are more optimistic about the prospects of quantum computing warn that the issue is less about an arms race and more about long-term investment.

“The race to quantum computing is more of a marathon,” said Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who specializes in China and advanced technology.

“I would say that China isn’t actually ahead in quantum computing, at least for now,” she said, pointing to progress made by American companies including IBM, Microsoft, Google and others. “I try to push back against the fear and the hype.”

Kania and her center colleague John Costello recently published a report detailing the status of the quantum computer race between the United States and China. Kania says China’s dedication to research at the highest levels of government may allow for Beijing to surpass its competitors.

Chinese President Xi Xinping has been a major proponent of quantum computing, and even mentioned it in his 2018 New Year’s address. While it’s difficult to estimate the total amount spent in research, “it appears that the recent and current levels of funding will amount to billions of dollars,” according to the CNAS study.

“Given how much of a priority this is for Chinese leaders, there could be rapid advances beyond what we’re expecting,” Kania said.

This sort of analysis is catching the attention of lawmakers, who say they are concerned by China’s rapid progress in technology that could threaten our national security — and plan to put forward legislation to foster U.S.-based competition.

“The idea that another country, particularly one that is as aggressive as China, would have the ability to rapidly break modern encryption should concern every American,” said Sen. Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee to Yahoo News. “I expect we’ll be spending an increasing amount of time looking at this threat in the coming years.”

And in September, the House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act to support research among industry, academia and governmental institutions.

Intelligence officials have publicly lamented that the U.S. is not well prepared to challenge China in physics and advanced technology.

The U.S. needs a better strategy “because China plays the long game,” said George Barnes, deputy director of the NSA, in response to comments about quantum computing and artificial intelligence. “They’re taking steps that may not be realized for 20 years. … They’re bold about it.”

Meanwhile, CIA officials, despite a heavy focus on recruiting human spies, recognize that technology and science are the way of the future — and worry that we aren’t committing enough resources to advanced fields.

“Physics … it’s the most underrated, most incredibly needed skill,” said Paula Doyle, the recently retired CIA associate deputy director of operations, at a national security conference in November. Doyle also headed the agency’s cyber efforts. “It’s the least understood in [the Pentagon] as opposed to how Russia and China are proceeding.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has sponsored a global competition to develop code — post-quantum or quantum safe cryptography — designed to protect the internet and sensitive data from a quantum computer. 

“There are a lot of people working on quantum cryptography,” says Dustin Moody, a researcher at NIST working on the project. “Theoretically, if you have this technology, you would make a crypto system that would be unbreakable,” he said. His team at NIST has been interacting with stakeholders in the government and private sector to raise awareness of the problem.

However, Matthew Green, a computer science professor and cryptographer at the Johns Hopkins University argues it is “a serious national security issue,” particularly if “we’re not prepared.” While there have been major strides in developing post-quantum cryptography, proving it’s possible won’t be sufficient.

There may not be the necessary political will within the United States to do what needs to be done to transform the way we protect ourselves digitally and implement those new standards — what would most likely need to be an incredibly costly societal effort. The recently retired national security official told Yahoo News that a detailed study at the White House about threats posed by emerging technology led to few ideas for solutions.

A 2016 study published by a working group under President Barack Obama on the challenges and opportunities posed by quantum computing noted that, while there are many economic- and scientific-related chances to succeed in quantum science, the U.S. has multiple impediments to progress, including boundaries between potential partners, lack of training, inconsistency in funding and uncertain availability of materials for development.

The U.S., unlike China, cannot unilaterally force private companies and citizens to work on certain issues or establish certain security standards.

In the past, the NSA and its partners “spent years” trying to persuade private companies “to upgrade” to most secure forms of encryption, says Green at Johns Hopkins. “The U.S. initiative to do this basically failed. The NSA gave up a couple years ago and just said, Don’t bother.”

That’s because they had moved onto a new threat: quantum computers, which Green says will take a lot more work to prepare for.

Moody at NIST confirmed those concerns. “Even if we were to today say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a new crypto system that we completely trust,’ even if we had one already, it would still take five, 10, 15 years before we start to really see a lot of widespread use,” he said

“It’s hard for some companies to justify spending a lot more money to prevent a threat that ‘could be.’ For some people, that might be too late,” said Moody.

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