The blockbuster “Mortal Engines”, produced by Peter Jackson, describes how the planet has been largely destroyed by a “quantum weapons world war”. Because of the collapse it causes, a thousand years later, giant mechanized rolling cities roam through the devastation of Eurasia. The rolling cities devour and absorb each other, in order to survive and keep functioning. In this permanent war of all against all, the terrible “London City” achieves the reconstruction of a “quantum weapon system” and uses it against the “Asian Great Wall”, in order to reach the Asian resources.
Although “Mortal Engines” is a sci-fi movie, Hollywood has once more demonstrated the strategic importance of a technology asset, just as the movie industry has done numerous times before. In fact, the movie culture has been used several times to put together “representations and narratives that emphasize important features of the strategic debate,” says Dr. Jean-Michel Valantin. This time, the movie industry is bringing forward the “arms race” for quantum hegemony. Their scenarios highlight the link between quantum power and national security implications.
An Era of Quantum Leaps
When “quantum” is applied to “computing,” we are entering an era of a “quantum leap” (= dramatic advancement). As we look to this future, quantum computers will perform certain tasks much more efficiently than classical computers, providing humanity with a new tool in advancing solutions to challenges in diverse fields such as energy, finance, healthcare and aerospace, among others. Their capabilities will help us cure diseases, improve global financial markets, detangle traffic, combat climate change and more. The speed of quantum, combined with AI and machine learning, is a fascinating proposition.
Some speculate that quantum capability could be used to define future global economic hegemony. In fact, Representative Will Hurd of Texas, chairman of the congressional subcommittee on information technology, said that “The consequences of mastering quantum computing, while not as visual or visceral as a mushroom cloud, are no less significant than those faced by the scientists who lit up the New Mexico sky with the detonation at the Trinity test site 72 years ago. In the same way that atomic weaponry symbolized power throughout the Cold War, quantum capability is likely to define hegemony in today’s increasingly digital, interconnected global economy.”
National Programs on Quantum Information Science
The national investments in quantum computing reflect the potential applications of Quantum Information Science (QIS), as scientists tend to call quantum computing. Several nations are heavily investing in quantum research to gain economic and military advantage. The dual-use nature of quantum computing means that private companies and universities will also play key roles in inventing and adapting these new technologies. The extent to which a nation-state can marshal resources to prioritize the development of military applications may prove a decisive edge in this new technological race. It is quantum computing that will define our future, not AI.
Here’s how I predict that quantum computing may be used by major players in the near future:
China was an early leader in quantum research and development. In 2016, Beijing initiated an effort to achieve major breakthroughs in quantum technologies by 2030. That same year China launched the world’s first quantum satellite, which teleported a photon to Earth in 2017, as part of the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) project. The Micius satellite has successfully completed quantum key distribution (QKD) from orbit to ground stations in Xinglong, China, and Graz, Austria.
China is also developing a large ground-based network that uses quantum communication to protect messages, a first step towards worldwide secure quantum communications. In 2017, China established the first long-distance, terrestrial quantum-communication link between Beijing and Shanghai which was completely “unhackable” with surveillance or eavesdropping immediately detected due to the effect that measurement would have on the quantum particles.
Currently, the Chinese government is working on a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui province, for quantum research set to open in 2020, and e-commerce giant Alibaba is building a lab of its own. These scientific achievements represent landmark initiatives that could secure China’s government communications against foreign observation—at least until post-quantum cryptanalysis becomes a functional reality.
US and Canada
The US is another possible leader in the race to realize quantum applications for defense. Since 2016, the government has sponsored over US$200 million in quantum research, and in 2018 the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation committed another US$250m to support quantum sensing, computing and communications through two- to five-year grant awards. In December 2018, the US Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which allocates $1.275 billion to quantum research from 2019 to 2023.
Among the armed forces, the US Army Research Office funds extensive research in quantum computing, while the US Air Force sees it as transformative technology for information and space warfare.
In Canada, Honeywell and the Canadian Space Agency hope to have a quantum cryptographic satellite working in the Earth’s orbit by the end of 2022. Honeywell’s Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite, or QEYSSat for short, will be designed to validate quantum key distribution. The Canadian Space Agency project will cost approximately $30 million.
Private-sector companies such as Google, IBM, Intel and Microsoft have been conducting quantum research for almost a decade. Along with the Canadian company D-Wave Systems, they are leading the development of quantum computers that may run the quantum-enabled military platforms of the future.
Collectively, European nations are also investing substantially and making significant advances. The European Commission’s quantum-technologies flagship program will be a large-scale research initiative in the order of €1bn over a ten-year period. It is intended to focus on four main areas of quantum technology: communication, computation, simulation and sensing.
QuTech is working on a quantum mechanics system with the aim of creating a secure communications network between four different cities in the Netherlands by the end of 2020. Testing quantum theory will eventually lead to building a “quantum internet", which will give rise to new kinds of coding and allow for faster-than-light communication—possibilities that have powerful appeal for government agencies and the private sector alike.
In 2013, the UK government announced a five-year investment of ₤270m for its own National Quantum Technologies Program, which is intended to “create a coherent government, industry and academic quantum technology community”, and quantum technologies were in late 2018 the subject of a UK Parliamentary inquiry. As part of the Quantum Program, a national network of Quantum Technology Hubs was created that will explore the properties of quantum mechanics and how they can be harnessed for use in technology. The network started in December 2014 and initially involves 17 universities and 132 companies.
French President Emmanuel Macron signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia’s then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in May 2018 on a joint venture between the two countries to develop and commercialize a quantum silicon integrated circuit. This joint venture will combine the efforts of the Australian company Silicon Quantum Computing and the French research institute Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives. Finally, in September 2018, Germany announced new funding for quantum-technologies research worth €650m for the period 2018–22.
How Quickly Will We Become Encrypted Out?
The most immediately evident application of quantum computing is in national security. Quantum computers have the potential to disrupt current security protocols that protect global financial markets, render many of today’s sophisticated encryption systems inoperable and upend secret government intelligence. International competition is of grave concern because one of these machines could in theory crack the encryption that protects sensitive information inside governments and businesses around the world. Quantum communications and cryptography would also offer a distinct tactical advantage to any actor that employs them on the battlefield.
Using quantum communications for the purposes of transmitting classified data is appealing to military planners across the world, as these transmissions are impossible to tap clandestinely thanks to the fundamental properties of matter. This poses an opportunity for a veritable “quantum leap” forward in military communication.
A race has started for quantum technologies or quantum information science (QIS). Considering the consequences in terms of cryptology, known as a “crypto-apocalypse”, no country may allow another state or a foreign company to be the first to develop quantum computing.
At a moment when cyberattacks are carried out with increasing ease, improving the security of communications is crucial for guaranteeing the protection of sensitive information for states, private entities and individuals. The promise of quantum cryptanalysis is so alluring that some countries are already beginning to collect encrypted foreign communications with the expectation that they will be able to extract valuable secrets from that data in the future. When quantum cryptanalysis does become available, it will significantly affect international relations by making broadcast communications open to decryption. For countries that extensively rely on encryption to secure military operations, diplomatic correspondence or other sensitive data, this could be a watershed event.
Take a moment to imagine a global leak, an explosion of data unlike anything the planet has yet seen, where the innermost secrets of virtually every government, corporation, and entity on the planet become publicly available. Then combine this with the collapse of all trust on the internet. What would result is an undeniable destabilization of cyberspace and geopolitical stability.
How Real Is the Threat of Hijacked Machines?
Following the demands of the market for omnichannel presence, traditional business making is being digitally transformed. Big enterprises, medium and even micro businesses are embracing digital technology—such as cloud computing environments, IoT devices, mobility, microservices and DevOps—to deliver enhanced quality products and services at an increasing pace. Machines and machine identities are the core of this transformation.
Healthcare, water supply, electricity, oil and refinery, law enforcement, traffic management, airports and airplanes, all depend more and more on interconnected devices that need to authenticate themselves to ensure the proper functioning of highly critical infrastructure. Small or bigger scale incidents on critical infrastructure have significant physical and societal impact.
Machine authentication relies heavily on encryption algorithms. What could happen if an adversary could develop and use quantum computers to reverse engineer machine identities? The scenario of “Mortal Engines” will become a frightening reality. That actor would have the ability to wreak havoc. Hijacked machines could be turned against states, communities and cause deaths, not by physically killing people, but by, for example, contaminating the water supply. It could cause chaos in motorways and in air traffic control.
That adversary would have the ability to target the “center of gravity” of an organized society and make it come to its knees. If you just sit back and consider the consequences of attacks like Stuxnet, WannaCry and NotPetya, you may have a sense of the scale of the potential consequences of hijacked machines.
Geopolitical Implications of Quantum Computing
While at the microphysical level everything about quantum computing is very small, at the geopolitical level it's just the opposite: the implications are very large indeed. Quantum computing will bring seismic geopolitical implications, especially in the critical domains of information security and cyberwarfare.
When China launched in 2016 Micius, the world’s first quantum communications enabled satellite, some remembered of 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. This parallel was also pinned by Jian-Wei Pan, the lead researcher on the Micius project, who hailed the start of “a worldwide quantum space race.”
Quantum computing is an emblematic battleground. Mastering such state-of-the-art technology is not a matter of prestige, it is a vital issue of determining the global status quo. 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.
For militaries, the potential gains of quantum-enabled computing networks are clear. If the QUESS project is a success, China could gain an upper-hand in its space-based intelligence operations, including surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, environmental monitoring, communications and attack assessment. If technology functions according to the laws of quantum theory, cyberattacks on satellites would become impossible, meaning that adversaries would not be able to interfere with military communications, for example by providing false coordinates or jamming signals. Strengthening these services would bolster China’s geopolitical power-projection and increase its presence as a leading player in space technology. Quantum-enabled military communications could thus present China with an opportunity to reduce U.S. dominance in international affairs.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has published the report Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospectswhere in the findings it is mentioned that “Although the feasibility of a large-scale quantum computer is not yet certain…. Quantum computing research has clear implications for national security. Even if the probability of creating a working quantum computer was low, given the interest and progress in this area, it seems likely this technology will be developed further by some nation-states. Thus, all nations must plan for a future of increased QC capability. The threat to current asymmetric cryptography is obvious and is driving efforts toward transitioning to post-quantum cryptography… But the national security implications transcend these issues. A larger, strategic question is about future economic and technological leadership….”
In 1919, Halford John Mackinder wrote in Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction an influential theory for a route to world domination, writing:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World".
In the post WWII world, nuclear weapons determined the world balance and defined conventional warfare. QIS seems to be destined to redraw the rules of cyberwarfare. Whoever masters it, will cement their supremacy across almost every key technological domain. Given the dire consequences of falling behind, no country nor high-tech company can afford lagging in the quantum race, or even worse, ignoring it. Is quantum computing the new “World-Island”?
A 2018 report by New America think tank, authored by Robert Morgus, Jocelyn Woolbright and Justin Sherman, was speaking of the “Digital Deciders” and how the internet is divided into two poles and three clusters. With the advent of quantum technologies, there is a growing concern that the digital divide among nations will exacerbate and security disparities will increase.
Will quantum power be decentralized and available to everyone? Or will it be traded by global tech companies and wealthy governments? For example, quantum cryptanalysis could theoretically be a great equalizer, but in reality, it may only become available to wealthy, advanced countries who can afford to operate the required assets. While world leaders seek to dominate the geopolitical or corporate world of data analytics, there is also a major risk of data poverty among less-developed nations. Will “quantum internet” be available to those who can afford it, while the rest of the world is relegated to a slower mode of communications where nothing is guaranteed to be private?
What can be certain at this stage is the disruptive effects of quantum technologies will likely lead countries to change their defense postures. With all new and powerful technology, a looming question remains: will quantum computing be used as a tool of creation, destruction, or both, and who will decide?
Learn how CRYPTO4A is pioneering quantum safe computing and ensuring that your thousands of digital certificates never lapse.