Quantum tech still too young to warrant export controls, defense advisers warn

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A report commissioned by the Pentagon helps provide insight into how various federal agencies fit into big-picture policy considerations on the emerging national security issue.

The U.S. still has too much to gain from China and the rest of the world for controlling exports of key quantum-science advancing technologies to make sense, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation.

The finding informed one of six policy recommendations the federally funded research and development center made in the report out this month. Sponsored from within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the report provides a more nuanced review of what’s often simply described as a competition between China and the U.S. It also points to roles for various specific agencies as the issue advances. 

“General-purpose quantum computers are still many years away, and the field is dynamic enough that it’s very hard to predict when the U.S. or any other nation will get there,” Edward Parker, RAND physical scientist and the report’s lead author, told Nextgov. “Although it’s useful to understand who’s currently ‘ahead,’ it’s even more important to make sure that we are properly prepared for quantum computers when they do arrive–no matter where in the world that may be–and that we have strong defenses in places to protect the security of our communications.” 

Other recommendations from the report include continuing to broadly fund research and development—considering where the government can complement what’s already being done by the private sector—monitoring and protecting key U.S. quantum technology firms from cyber intrusion, monitoring the financial fitness and ownership of quantum start-ups, and tracking the global movement of critical components, materials, workers and final quantum technology 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 using different kinds of math to create the algorithms will make them resistant to a quantum computer that eventually functions fast enough to decode the encryption formulas currently protecting all the digital information people and governments want to keep secret.

RAND physical scientist Michael Vermeer updated Nextgov on that front, and reacted to a more recent push the Biden administration is making for agencies to implement the new algorithms even before NIST has totally settled on what they should be.

Under a National Security Council memorandum released in January, the National Security Agency must soon issue guidance for agencies to modernize their cryptography. The memo also provides Binding Operational Directive authority to NSA which has expressed a preference for codes that use what’s known as lattice multiplication.

Vermeer was encouraged by the NSC memo and other developments noted in a recent review NSA released of its cybersecurity work in 2021, which says the agency “delivered the first set of updated cryptographic devices [such as random number generators, for example] to protect National Security Systems from potential adversarial quantum computing attacks.” 

The NSA review “indicates to me that 1) the NSA has chosen some cryptographic implementations already that they believe are robust against quantum attack,” he said, “and 2) the rapid implementation means they are probably taking seriously the possibility for catch-now-exploit-later attacks against NSS, where an adversary could capture encrypted data and hold it until they possessed a quantum computer that could decrypt it.”

“All of these [actions] together indicate a real federal priority on urgently addressing national cybersecurity risk related to quantum computing,” Vermeer said, also noting the Department of Homeland Security’s role working with private-sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure to transition 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 how they relate to federal cybersecurity policy—alongside Charles Tahan, the administration’s top quantum official—on Nextgov’s Critical Update podcast.

There’s definitely an element of competition to consider in shaping quantum-technology policy. The winner could not only know all the others’ secrets, they could also use exponential “quantum computing” speed to perform all manner of calculations and discover breakthrough 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 unhackable with quantum-based encryption methods.

The RAND report uses metrics like the quality and quantity of research and patents produced in each of these three areas—quantum computing, sensing and communications—to measure U.S. progress on quantum technology compared to China and other countries. It found the two countries are generally running neck and neck in front of other governments developing the tech. Although China is clearly ahead on quantum communications, the U.S. and Europe are clearly ahead on quantum sensing.

On quantum computing, Parker told Nextgov, “The U.S. is still the overall technical world leader in quantum technology, but that lead has narrowed considerably just over the past year.” 

“The U.S. used to be the only country to have demonstrated real prototype quantum computers, but that’s no longer the case,” he said, referring to developments in China. “The global landscape of quantum technology leadership is becoming more complicated—for example, one of the leading U.K. companies and one of the leading U.S. companies have recently merged together into a new company with headquarters in both countries.”

At the end of 2018, the Commerce Department’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 U.S. exports of due to their “dual-use” nature. The term refers to tech that can be used for commercial and military purposes. 

But quantum science is young enough that the leading competing nations can both run faster if they’re allowed to collaborate and feed off each other, particularly in quantum computing, according to the report, which also noted, “no currently demonstrated quantum computing or communications technologies have immediate defense applications.” The report does support controlling exports 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 export-control related decisions and is also the wheelhouse for the kind of financial and other resource tracking activities recommended by the report. The report suggests some complicated considerations for the CFIUS agency heads, including those from Treasury, Justice, State and others.

“Export controls would prematurely limit the exchange of scientific ideas, slowing down technological progress. Having a broad base of experts (including outside the United States) experimenting with early-stage prototypes could speed up the discovery of useful defense-related applications,” Parker and his colleagues write. “Moreover, export controls could threaten the financial health of small U.S. start-ups that are advancing the state of the art in quantum technology, as it is not clear that there will be enough domestic demand to support them.” 

On the government research and development front, the Department of Energy has control over an important chunk of about $700 million agencies were collectively on track to spend advancing quantum technology in fiscal year 2021, as the report was being written. The RAND report suggests the government continue to diversify its investment broadly across the quantum technology fields it examined, including quantum communications, where China is leading the way.

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