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The possibility that China is taking the lead in quantum computing is likely a driving force behind the Biden Administration Executive Order aimed at boosting the U.S. National Quantum Initiative.
The Biden memorandum
A memorandum issued on May 4 by President Biden directs federal agencies to ensure that the U.S. maintains leadership in Quantum information science (QIS). But it is safe to assume that a subtext of the order is the danger that China poses.
The memorandum, “National Security Memorandum on Promoting United States Leadership in Quantum Computing While Mitigating Risks to Vulnerable Cryptographic Systems,” identifies the steps needed to maintain a U.S. lead in QIS while defending against foreign threats and directs agencies to begin the multi-year process of migrating “vulnerable” computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.
Quantum computers, which can complete certain tasks orders of magnitude faster than classical supercomputers, will be a critical bulwark against possible future cyber threats. Why is this a threat? A cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC) will be capable of breaking the public-key cryptography on current computer systems.
“When it becomes available, a CRQC could jeopardize civilian and military communications, undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure, and defeat security protocols for most Internet-based financial transactions,” the memorandum said.
Key points in the memorandum include:
- Investments should target the discovery of new quantum applications, new approaches to quantum-component manufacturing, and advances in quantum‑enabling technologies, such as photonics, nanofabrication, and cryogenic and semiconductor systems.
- Within 90 days of the release of the first set of NIST standards for quantum-resistant cryptography the Director of NIST shall release a proposed timeline for the deprecation of quantum-vulnerable cryptography in standards, with the goal of moving the maximum number of systems off quantum-vulnerable cryptography within a decade of the publication of the initial set of standards.
- Within 1 year of the release of the first set of NIST standards, the Director of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shall issue a policy memorandum requiring Federal Civilian Executive Branch Agencies to develop a plan to upgrade their non-NSS IT systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.
- By December 31, 2023, agencies maintaining National Security Systems (NSS) shall implement symmetric-key protections (e.g., High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor (HAIPE) exclusion keys or VPN symmetric key solutions) to provide additional protection for quantum-vulnerable key exchanges.
Though the memorandum did not mention any nation-state actors as threats, China has clearly become very competitive in quantum computing.
A July 15, 2021 article in Scientific American, “China Is Pulling Ahead in Global Quantum Race, New Studies Suggest” discussed advances in Chinese quantum computing including a quantum processor made of 66 superconducting qubits.
More recently, an article in DefenseOne, China May Have Just Taken the Lead in the Quantum Computing Race, said that China had surpassed Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore processor.
“In 2019, Google reported that its 53-qubit Sycamore processor had completed in 3.3 minutes a task that would have taken a traditional supercomputer at least 2.5 days. Last October, China’s 66-qubit Zuchongzhi 2 quantum processor reportedly completed the same task 1 million times faster,” the report said.
The Chinese team that developed the processor is led by Jian-Wei Pan, sometimes referred to as China’s Father of Quantum. Pan is a full professor of physics at the University of Science and Technology of China. Other institutions involved in the development of the processor include the Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Excellence in Quantum Information and Quantum Physics and the Shanghai Research Center for Quantum Sciences.
Other reports (“Biden orders new quantum push to ensure encryption isn't cracked by rivals...to make sure you-know-who – OK, China – doesn't get ahead of the game”), also suggest that China may be further along in quantum computing than the U.S. government is letting on.
Beijing is keen on achieving breakthroughs in the field of quantum computing by 2030, according to The Register. In the memorandum, the Biden Administration says U.S. must transition cryptographic systems to quantum-resistant cryptography by 2035.