This Feb. 27, 2018, photo shows a seven cubit quantum device is seen at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Describing the inner workings of a quantum computer isn’t easy, even for top scholars. That’s because the machines process information at the scale of elementary particles such as electrons and photons, where different laws of physics apply. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The quantum threat comes just as the internet of things and 5G mobile connectivity are arriving, with higher security requirements
For close to 40 years, quantum computing has been seen as a curious but exciting mix of science fiction and hard computer science somewhere in the distant future.
In the past 10 years, however, large organisations such as Microsoft, Google and IBM have invested more heavily in quantum computing, which uses quantum mechanics rather than binary digital transistors for its calculations. Tools that had previously been theoretical have materialised. Quantum computing is no longer “decades away”.
IBM started giving the public access to a basic quantum computer in the cloud in 2016 and, so far, more than 100,000 people have run more than 6.7m experiments on it. This year, the first quantum computers came into use. These noisy intermediate-scale quantum, or NISQ, computers are not error-corrected and therefore only able to accomplish part of what full quantum computers will be able to do, but people are now able to move beyond theory.
Not surprisingly, the main area of concern emerging for governments and large corporations is security and encryption. Quantum technologies dramatically move the boundaries of what can be computed. Calculations that would take advanced supercomputers thousands of years to perform will eventually be done in less than a minute by quantum computers.
At some point this will render whole swaths of current encryption technologies obsolete.
Governments are aware of the security threat. The US House of Representatives recently passed the Quantum Computing Research Act, which aims to establish a new federal programme to advance quantum technologies. Tellingly, the bill is being managed through the US Senate by the armed services committee.
The US National Institute of Standards and Technology, meanwhile, recently unveiled a consortium to support the quantum industry. A new cohort of companies such as Intel, Hitachi and Huawei are also entering the fray alongside more established players. It is critical that companies and governments adopt quantum-secure methods sooner rather than later to replace existing methods of encryption.
I often use the analogy of a child in a room to highlight the difference between “secure” encryption and “unhackable” methods of securing data. Imagine a three-month-old infant in a room with an unlocked door. The baby is incapable of escaping; it is secure. A toddler in that same room simply walks up to the door, turns the handle, and walks out. Secure suddenly becomes vulnerable.
The quantum threat comes just as the internet of things and 5G mobile connectivity are arriving, with higher security requirements than we have had before.
There are broadly two ways to create a quantum secure future.
- One is to create new algorithms that, in the view of many mathematicians and computer scientists, not even the most powerful quantum computers will be able to breach. Organisations such as NIST have a list of such “quantum-proof” constructs with names such as “lattice-based” or “hash-based” protocols, and some organisations may decide this is the way to become quantum-proof.
However, being reliant on algorithms is risky. As man-made constructs, these will always have patterns that are capable of being unpicked. The history of the past 25 years shows just how quickly today’s secure algorithm is tomorrow’s vulnerability. AES-256 encryption, for example, which secures much of the internet backbone and which has been widely touted as “uncrackable”, was hacked by Dutch security researchers last year.
- The second is building a physical solution based on quantum mechanics. Unlike algorithms, quantum computers can produce truly random numbers with no patterns. Only these can withstand hacking attempts by other quantum computers. The first commercially available quantum security solutions will start to be deployed in 2019.
The commercialisation of quantum technologies will continue as we move into 2019. According to Gartner, the US research group, within five years more than 20 per cent of all companies will be investing in quantum computing products, including quantum secure encryption, to ensure their safety from cyber attacks.
U.S. House of Representatives passed the $1.275B National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA)
Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and development. Among other things it would establish a National Quantum Coordination Office within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to oversee a “whole-of-government” effort. A companion bill is under consideration in the U.S Senate. Meanwhile another proposal, the Quantum Computing Research Act (QCRA), was introduced in the Senate in June and directs DoD to form a Defense Quantum Information Consortium.
Sorting through the various quantum computing efforts in Congress can be confusing. Bipartisan support from House Committee on Science, Space and Technology chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) helped speed the NQIA effort through the House. The bill has backers from industry and academia and comes at a time when the global race in quantum computing is heating up despite the admittedly nascent stage of the technology. In total, the House bill calls for $1.275 billion in funding for the National Quantum Initiative during its first five years but makes no provisions for funding the next five years.
Intel likened pursuit of leadership in quantum computing to a “modern day space race” and Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware, Intel Labs, issued a statement in support: “This legislation will allocate funding for public research in the emerging area of Quantum Computing, which has the potential to help solve some of our nation’s greatest challenges through exponential increases in compute speed. [We] look forward to working with leaders in the Senate to help keep the U.S. at the cutting edge of quantum information science and maintain the economic advantages of this technological leadership.”
Judging the state of quantum technology remains challenging. (For an overview see HPCwire article, Hyperion Tackles Elusive Quantum Computing Landscape; full text of the NQIA may be found here). The NQIA is broad in scope and directs the President to:
- “establish the goals, priorities, and metrics for a 10-year plan to accelerate development of quantum information science and technology applications in the United States;
- “invest in fundamental Federal quantum information science and technology research, development, demonstration, and other activities to achieve the goals established in paragraph;
- “invest in activitiesto develop a quantum information science and technology workforce pipeline;
- “provide for interagency coordination of Federal quantum information science and technology research, development, demonstration, and other activities undertaken pursuant to the Program;
- “partner with industry and academia to leverage knowledge and resources;
- “leverage existing Federal investments efficiently to advance Program goals and objectives.
As spelled out in the bill, 1) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Activities and Workshops would receive $400 million (2019-2023 at $80 million per year); 2) National Science Foundation (NSF) Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education would receive $250 million (2019-2023, at $50 million per year); and 3) Department of Energy Research and National Quantum Information Science Research Centers would receive $625 million (2019-2023 at $125 million per year). These numbers will have to be reconciled with what the Senate passes, and then actually get appropriated.
“The Quantum Industry Coalition strongly supports the NQI Act and is working to help get it to the President’s desk. My understanding is that right now it’s a matter of negotiations between the Senate Commerce and Energy and Natural Resources Committees, with the House participating in the discussions as well; the Senate is aiming to pass a compromise that the House can then pass, with a goal of getting everything done before the end of the year,” said Paul Stimers, a partner in K&L Gates and an organizer of the quantum industry lobbying group.
The second major bill, the Quantum Computing Research Act of 2018, is focused on DoD and calls for, “alignment of effort within the United States government, academic, and private sectors are vital to ensuring the best technology is made available for the defense of the United States; and to the extent possible to protect national security, work performed under section 3 should be maintained at the lowest possible classification level to promote coordination between consortium partners and growth within the field of quantum information science.”
Introduced in June by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), it directs the Secretary of Defense to establish the Consortium composed of members (academia and industry) selected by the Chiefs of U.S. Naval and Army research and supported by a board which would include member of the National Quantum Initiative. From a first reading of the bill it looks actual work would be supported by issuing grants.
Links to recent quantum computing coverage in HPCwire: since 1987 – Covering the Fastest Computers in the World and the People Who Run Them:
The US Push To Boost ‘Quantum Computing’
Published: September 24, 2018
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. (AP) — A race by U.S. tech companies to build a new generation of powerful “quantum computers” could get a $1.3 billion boost from Congress, fueled in part by lawmakers’ fear of growing competition from China.
Legislation passed earlier in September by the U.S. House of Representatives would create a 10-year federal program to accelerate research and development of the esoteric technology. As the bill moves to the Senate, where it also has bipartisan support, the White House showed its enthusiasm for the effort by holding a quantum summit Monday.
Scientists hope government backing will help attract a broader group of engineers and entrepreneurs to their nascent field. The goal is to be less like the cloistered Manhattan Project physicists who developed the first atomic bombs and more like the wave of tinkerers and programmers who built thriving industries around the personal computer, the internet and smartphone apps.
WHAT’S A QUANTUM COMPUTER?
Describing the inner workings of a quantum computer isn’t easy, even for top scholars. That’s because the machines process information at the scale of elementary particles such as electrons and photons, where different laws of physics apply.
“It’s never going to be intuitive,” said Seth Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “At this microscopic level, things are weird. An electron can be here and there at the same time, at two places at once.”
Conventional computers process information as a stream of bits, each of which can be either a zero or a one in the binary language of computing. But quantum bits, known as qubits, can register zero and one simultaneously.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
In theory, the special properties of qubits would allow a quantum computer to perform calculations at far higher speeds than current supercomputers. That makes them good tools for understanding what’s happening in the realms of chemistry, material science or particle physics.
That speed could aid in discovering new drugs, optimizing financial portfolios and finding better transportation routes or supply chains. It could also advance another fast-growing field, artificial intelligence, by accelerating a computer’s ability to find patterns in large troves of images and other data.
What worries intelligence agencies most about the technology’s potential — and one reason for the heightened U.S. interest — is that a quantum computer could in several decades be powerful enough to break the codes of today’s best cryptography.
Today’s early quantum computers, however, fall well short on that front.
WHERE CAN YOU FIND ONE?
While quantum computers don’t really exist yet in a useful form, you can find some loudly chugging prototypes in a windowless lab about 40 miles north of New York City.
Qubits made from superconducting materials sit in colder-than-outer-space refrigerators at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Take off the cylindrical casing from one of the machines and the inside looks like a chandelier of hanging gold cables — all of it designed to keep 20 fragile qubits in an isolated quantum state.
“You need to keep it very cold to make sure the quantum bits only entangle with each other the way you program it, and not with the rest of the universe,” said Scott Crowder, IBM’s vice president of quantum computing.
IBM is competing with Google and startups like Berkeley, California-based Rigetti Computing to get ever-more qubits onto their chips. Microsoft, Intel and a growing number of venture-backed startups are also making big investments. So are Chinese firms Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, which have close ties to the Chinese government.
But qubits are temperamental, and early commercial claims mask the ongoing struggle to control them, either by bombarding them with microwave signals — as IBM and Google do — or with lasers.
“It only works as long as you isolate it and don’t look at it,” said Chris Monroe, a University of Maryland physicist. “It’s a grand engineering challenge.”
WHY DOES QUANTUM COMPUTING NEED FEDERAL SUPPORT?
Monroe is among quantum leaders from academia and industry who gathered in Washington on Monday with officials from the White House science office. Some federal agencies, including the departments of defense and energy, already have longstanding quantum research efforts, but advocates are pushing for more coordination among those agencies and greater collaboration with the private sector.
“The technology that underlies this area comes from some pretty weird stuff that we professors are used to at the university,” said Monroe, who is also the founder of quantum startup IonQ, which floats individual atoms in a vacuum chamber and points lasers to control them. But he said corporate investment can be risky because of the technical challenges and the long wait for a commercial payoff.
“The infrastructure required, the hardware, the personnel, is way too expensive for anyone to go in it alone,” said Prineha Narang, a Harvard University assistant professor of computational materials science.
By investing more in basic discovery and training — as the House-passed National Quantum Initiative Act would do — Narang said the U.S. could expand the ranks of scientists and engineers who build quantum computers and then find commercial applications for them.
WHAT ARE THE INTERNATIONAL IMPLICATIONS?
The potential economic benefits have won bipartisan support for the initiative, which is estimated to cost about $1.3 billion in its first five years. Also pushing action on Capitol Hill is a belief that if the U.S. doesn’t adopt a unified strategy, it could one day be overtaken by other countries.
“China has publicly stated a national goal of surpassing the U.S. during the next decade,” said Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House science, space and technology committee, as he urged his colleagues on the House floor to support the bill to “preserve America’s dominance in the scientific world.”
Smith said he expects the Senate will pass a companion bill before the end of the year.