Has the battle for quantum supremacy already been lost?
Executive Summary & Takeaways
Quantum technologies are poised to radically alter the technical, political and commercial landscape of the US-Chinese dynamic. As it stands, the US is in a greatly disadvantaged position and current investments do not close the gap in a meaningful timeline. From the US national security, to American competitiveness, a Chinese lead in Quantum could well define the rest of the 21st century.
It is entirely possible this battle has already been lost. Can we be sure that this brief has not already been read by a PRC quantum analyst put in place to keep the full scope of their advances hidden? Call it a Quantum Coventry strategy (after the WW2 attack that killed over 600 people, linked to keeping the cracking of ENIGMA secret).
1. The Chinese have invested, at a minimum 10 times as much as the US in quantum technologies, unless there are secret investments north of $50bn.
2. In 2016 they began publicly announcing quantum radar and communications systems in real world environments
3. Offensive cyber and other espionage applications, coupled with quantum tools, allows the Chinese government to advance global commercial interests and accelerate their advances.
4. Using the industrialization of genetics as a model, based on interviews with leaders in the field, it is possible that by the end of the year (if not already), quantum computers capable of breaking current encryption standards will be available.
5. The passage of the US National Quantum Initiative Act, a 10 year new set of programs across a variety of federal agencies, around $1.25bn in investment and some other activities is a good step but a woefully tiny drop in the bucket.
[NOTE: This was originally published in a slightly different form on 8 Aug, this version has been edited for public consumption]
Quantum computing represents a category of technologies that shift computational technologies out of the digital for the first time. Digital — the 1’s and 0’s that are ubiquitous today — are replaced by a near infinite set of numbers, with a corresponding massive increase in computational power. Instead of working on one calculation, a similarly sized computer could calculate an entire category of calculations, picking the best and moving on. Coupled with AI, it will soon change the face of technology in a myriad of ways.
For the last 20 years, the Chinese government has invested orders of magnitude more into these technologies, and while much of it is shrouded in secrecy, what is known now is generations ahead of what is available anywhere else. From communications systems, to radar, to encryption and advanced analytics, they are generations ahead of the United States. Coupled with the offensive cyber capabilities the Chinese make use of on a daily basis, it presents a clear and present threat to the US, US corporations and US global interest.
A few places where Quantum already has an impact
Quantum Communication: Quantum communications systems are proofed against eavesdropping, as any attempt to eavesdrop would change the entangled quantum state, alerting the users. In 2016, the Chinese launched a quantum communications satellite — Micius. Micius is the first step in China building a nationwide quantum network for military communications and financial transactions.
Quantum Radar: Quantum radar is a photo-based radar system that, unlike electromagnetic platforms in use today, can bypass stealth technologies, and is immune to most if not all interference technologies. The same month as the launch of Micius in 2016, the Chinese announced a quantum radar platform in a real-world environment.
Quantum Technologies Breaking Encryption: While we might be a few years away from a pure quantum computer — one that could replace the computers used for in general use environments today — specially designed quantum computers with a focus on breaking encryption are much closer, if not already here. Nearly every encryption platform in general use, from communications to financial transactions, to healthcare records is vulnerable to this kind of attack. Lattice cryptography is one example of an emerging cryptographic technology that may prove less vulnerable to quantum attacks.
A brief note: one cannot ignore the timing of these announcements in communications and radar vis-à-vis the US presidential election and within the context of the ‘special relationship’ between China and Russia. The timing raises more questions than answers.
Comparison of Current US and Chinese Investment
While the full scope of Chinese investment is not known, what is publicly known, puts their investments at a different order of magnitude. This year they announced a 4 million square foot industrial research facility, spending over $10 billion. Best estimates on Chinese investments in Quantum start on the low end at $50 billion and go up from there. They have been spending more for longer. As far back as the 1980’s it has been known these technologies are the next step on the innovation curve — hints of Chinese research and investment started then.
In June, the National Quantum Initiative Act was proposed, with broad congressional support. The plan proposes a 5 year, $1.275bn set of activities at DoE, NSF and NIST focused on primary research in a variety of quantum areas, as well as directing the federal research community to build a 10-year strategic plan. On an annualized basis, the $200m or so per year earmarked currently (implementation looks to start in 2019 given the current state of the legislation) is less that 1/50th of what the Chinese appear to be spending (ignoring secret/classified spend on both sides). On that front, even if the US had a secret investment of which the general public is unaware, it would have to have totaled well over $50bn over the last 15 years to put the US program in the same ballpark as the Chinese.
History of Chinese Technical Attacks
Without rehashing the history of offensive Chinese cyber activities, a brief mention of the hacks of the JSF, B-2, drone and other programs that have led to the development of the J-20, J-31, H-20, CH-5 and other weapons systems are worth highlighting. Also, worth mentioning are the backdoors into telecommunications infrastructure, compromised supply chains of networking hardware vendors and the use of smartphone-based ultrasonic, and their discoveries near US IC facilities.
The point here is that it is an error to consider the Chinese public and private sectors as separate entities — they exist together. Anything learned through cyber means is disseminated to all interested/needed parties. As such, advances in any one specific area (i.e. quantum) are available across the entire Chinese ecosystem.
What we have seen to date in terms of Chinese offensive capabilities is simply a foundation, a road map if you will, to our public and private sectors and that the Chinese will leverage everything they can get both politically and commercially.
Chinese Competitiveness & Industrialization
The Chinese are rather unimaginative when it comes to building large scale programs around innovative technologies, as such you can use other areas for modeling their activities. The key for this dialogue is when the inflection curve crosses the industrialization line. Clinical genetics is a close recent example — BGI. While BGI was started over 20 years ago, in 2010 they received an investment of $1.5 billion which, within 12 months, had scaled their industrial capabilities to dominate the market. At mid-point in that year only 2,700 human genomes had been sequenced. By the end of the year it was over 30,000. The rest of the Chinese ecosystem (like Wuxi) emerged quickly to drive applied use of it — today Wuxi has the largest biologic library and manufacturing plant in the world and is a leading force in drug development. Within 3 years, the Chinese had industrial scale animal cloning in use.
It is difficult to imagine the Chinese driving the kind of industrial scale into quantum without significant advances outside of the public eye. When the Chinese pull the industrialization lever, global impact is not far off.
While most look to D-wave Systems, Google, IBM and other western companies as the harbingers of innovation, in the case of Quantum, all eyes should be on the Chinese. Review the takeaways at the top, but it is clear they are far ahead, and investing appropriately to dominate this market, with wide ranging impacts for the US today, and in the future.