Big Data

Why the U.S. needs to urgently prioritize quantum investments

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This post was written by Tommy Gardner, CTO of  HP Federal

In August 2020 the U.S. government invested $1 billion in the development of advanced technologies, including quantum information science. Multiple federal agencies will receive funding and five quantum centers will be established to explore quantum science and engineering, superconducting quantum materials, quantum systems and other applications to help the U.S. compete on the global stage. Although difficult to assess precisely, the U.S. appears to significantly lag behind other developed countries, particularly China. But the importance of U.S. investment in quantum information science can’t be overstated. Researchers and technologists are currently exploring applications for these new capabilities from enhanced computing power to incredible sensing devices to heightened data security via more powerful encryption techniques to storing massive amounts of information through quantum memory. In theory, a quantum designed internet or “Qi2” will be much more secure being designed with security first.

The potential to transform national security, cybersecurity, and communications and network infrastructure with quantum could not only make the U.S. a leading global power in quantum, but it would also redefine how the government operates and have a significant impact on our economy. The flip side of this coin also applies. In the absence of strong investment in domestic quantum technologies, the U.S. runs a very real risk of falling permanently behind.

A new approach to encryption

For many agencies the most immediate and pressing use case for quantum information science to “unlock” is improved information security. Current encryption methodology uses pseudo-random number generators which are based on very few truly random seeds, which opens opportunities for compromise. Quantum true random number generators promise a substantial increase in the difficulty of hacking a given information stream. In the wake of the SolarWinds hack, it’s easy to see the value for better securing documents, data, and communications on agency networks.

Take blockchain for example. It has made some types of operations more secure thanks to an improved method for validating information using distributed data sets, combined with existing hashing algorithms. Some countries have even used blockchain to help secure online voting. While blockchain is difficult to hack because of the distributed ledger, it has a less-well-known set of weaknesses on the authentication side. These weaknesses make many blockchain schemes vulnerable in a post-quantum world. It has also been shown that implementation flaws may be exploited; proving that hacking a blockchain is not impossible. Practical, long-distance quantum networks could make this and many other types of security-related applications substantially more secure.

Better encryption could tighten up other vulnerable networks, such as critical infrastructure at the state and local level. A recent malicious attempt to disrupt the city of Oldsmar, Florida’s water supply would have compromised the city’s water treatment system, and is a prime example of how unprotected, distributed networks like local infrastructure could benefit from quantum encryption.  Better security in these areas creates obvious benefits for both the public and private sector, as it would harden these vital networks against bad actors.

Another area to watch is quantum memory, which could deliver three key benefits, in distinctly different areas. First, it is a foundational technology for building a globally-scalable quantum internet; one that would support global entanglement distribution. A globally-available quantum internet backbone would revolutionize not only security and privacy, but also quantum computing and sensing operations. Second, quantum memory could enable us to store a huge amount of information in a space the size of a few dozen atoms. That kind of breakthrough storage density could impact a multitude of industries. Finally, a true quantum memory (where both the data and the addresses are represented in superposition) could transform fast searching and sorting operations, but also enable a class of breakthrough AI algorithms known as HHL.

The case for talent and the economy

As revolutionary as these ideas are, they’re just the start. With other governments and industry investing serious money in the field, we’re primed for a second global quantum revolution. In order to take advantage of this moment, the U.S. needs to allocate funds to recruiting top talent across research, engineering and cybersecurity to turn these technologies into reality for near-term impact. The U.S. can’t afford to play the long game of five or ten years, when other countries are making progress now.

To catch up and get ahead, we’ll need a concerted effort to support new research. Money itself isn’t enough. We need researchers who are properly trained and understand the field well enough to identify opportunities and capitalize on them. We need a plan to recruit and train these experts, alongside a plan to ramp up our spending on research and development as we grow our capacity to use those funds productively.

The introduction of the quantum centers as part of the $1 billion federal investment are a start to harness the talent and research the U.S. needs, but we are still in the early stages of identifying the most effective uses of quantum for economic benefit. The potential for positive impact across national and cyber security, data processing, infrastructure and countless other fields is exponential, as long as smart investments of both money and human resources continue to be made in the quantum fields today.

Dr. Tommy Gardner is HP’s Chief Technology Officer for HP Federal, spanning the US Federal Agencies, Higher Education, K-12 Education, State and Local government customer segments, as well as Federal Systems Integrators. His current responsibilities include technology leadership, strategic technology plans, product and technology strategies, sales force technical support, and customer and partner relationships.

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