Defining the Coming Quantum Revolution  

Image credit: Depositphotos enhanced by CogWorld

February 20, 2019


​The quantum revolution is starting to gain traction as more people realize the potential technological capabilities of this less understood but powerful science. Quantum technology is still in the early phases of development, but its incredible capabilities could enhance our digital future in unprecedented and almost unpredictable ways. Quantum computing is at the tip of the spear in this technological wave and could exponentially heighten our computing power while strengthening other developing technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. There are seemingly endless applications for quantum technologies in all aspects of society, but the most influential could be in the field of homeland security.


Quantum technology could significantly augment the homeland security mission through:


➢ Cybersecurity – Shor’s algorithm for quantum computing could theoretically defeat the commonly-used RSA algorithm, negating almost all modern encryption formats

➢ Optimization Problems – The potential ability for quantum computers to expertly solve optimization problems could increase efficiency across all critical infrastructure sectors, most notably improving upon the Haber Bosch process

➢ Smart Cities – Essentially a large optimization problem, quantum computing could become a pivotal asset by analyzing large amounts of publicly inputted data and improve upon traffic patterns, power grids, emergency service response, etc.

➢ Quantum Metrology Through quantum technology, we can refine instruments across all fields of study to be more accurate. When paired with existing platforms, we can significantly enhance our operating capabilities across multiple sectors

➢ Quantum Communication Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) could provide a method of secure communication that informs both participants of message interception and could be the first quantum technology commercialized
 


The United States has historically been lagging behind in the quantum race but the issuing of the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science and the creation of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium in September of this year was a major step in the right direction. This must be followed up with a continuous effort to cultivate and monitor the development of quantum technologies to ensure that this potentially transformational technology does not catch us by surprise in any facet. The U.S. cannot afford to receive the silver medal in the quantum technology race because the possible effects to national security, economy and workforce could be catastrophic.  

Introduction

Quantum computing is going to change the world” (Ossola, 2018). “[Quantum technology] is the most important tech contest since the space race” (Nikias, 2018). “Quantum technology will be as transformational in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th century” (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). These are just some of the news headlines and discussion surrounding quantum technologies that you have most likely overheard as America prepares for the second quantum revolution. If you are at all like me, when you first read this you probably asked yourself, ‘Wait, a second revolution? When was the first?’ Alternatively, maybe wondered, ‘What is the big deal with quantum technology and how does it really impact me now?’ Well, grab a cup of coffee and sit down, there is a lot to discuss. 

The development of quantum technologies has caught the world by surprise, and despite gaining a lot of attention in the media as of late, most people simply don’t understand or aren’t aware of the potential quantum capabilities or its future applications. Quantum technology is an overarching term in which the principles of quantum mechanics are applied to develop advancements in electronics and improve many facets of our lives. The first quantum revolution is considered to have occurred in parallel with the development of classic computers. Through our basic understanding of quantum physics, we were able to control the flow of electricity and exploit its power with the inventions of semiconductors and microprocessors (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). Currently, we are approaching a second quantum revolution, as we take a closer look at physics on the atomic level and try to harness its power. Unfortunately, quantum physics is completely different from standard physics and we are still working through the initial phases of research. However, despite being early on in development, quantum technologies have already displayed their incredible potential to revolutionize electronics and launch society into a new digital realm, in theory at least. 

Leading the charge in this technological wave is quantum computing, which could fundamentally transform how we process and analyze data through computers. Its potential capability to exponentially increase computing power provides a seemingly endless list of applications, in almost aspects of life. However, probably the most important and most intriguing field for these applications is homeland security. Quantum technology could significantly enhance national security or totally shatter it, depending on who develops the technology first. The United States cannot afford to place second in the quantum technological race, as the results could be catastrophic, and great emphasis needs to be placed on researching, cultivating and monitoring the technology. The purpose of this assessment is to explore quantum technology applications for homeland security by first, understanding quantum electronics at a basic level through the explanation of quantum computing; second, discussing successes and challenges in development to understand the current technical landscape; and third, considering all areas of possible implementation while reviewing areas that need greater attention. 

Computing Defined

Before discussing the exciting applications of quantum technology, it is first necessary to explain how the technology operates to understand how it can revolutionize the digital era. As mentioned, leading the entire quantum discussion is the field of quantum computing. While quantum computing does not explain all the intricacies or interworking of quantum technology, it provides general insight into how quantum electronics function. However, to explain how quantum computing functions, a general understanding of classic computing is crucial. Most modern computers, like your personal laptop or smartphone, are referred to as classic computing. They operate off a coordinated system of simple units such as a main memory, arithmetic unit, control unit, etc. Breaking down these units step by step, computer units contain circuit chips which are comprised of basic modules, formulated by logic gates and all directed by a series of transistors. A transistor is the simplest form of a data processor, essentially a switch that turns on and off as information passes through it. The information is made of bits, set to a value of 0 or 1 and the transistor responds differently for each value. Combinations of bits are used to explain more detailed information and multiple transistors can be used to form logic gates, such as AND and OR. Through the careful manipulation of these logic gates and detailed programming, the user can create any computer system currently in use. Despite the complexity of the operating system, all modern-day classic computing comes back to the idea of bits, with an assigned value of 0 or 1. (Kurzgesagt, 2015)

The difficulty with classic computing is that we are approaching its innovative limit. The goal for every computer designer in the world is to make the systems faster and smaller, but this is becoming less and less practical. As problems increase in complexity, classic computing cannot handle the massive datasets required by database searching, optimization problems and modeling. Due to their fundamental structure of bits and transistors, classic computing takes too long to solve these problems because it must run through every possible code to check its value. Additionally, the designs cannot go much smaller without physics affecting their fundamental properties. Currently, a typical scale for a transistor is 14 nm, which is 500 times less than a red blood cell, or in more technical terms, really small (Kurzgesagt, 2015). As parts get this tiny, quantum physics starts to come into play which acts completely different from basic physics. In example, at this level there is a possibility of quantum tunneling, where electrons can transfer across a blocked passage (Kurzgesagt, 2015). In other words, the basic functions of a transistor become useless, as it no longer retains its ability to act as a defined switch; data can move past it despite the value. However, instead of viewing quantum physics as an issue for computing, scientists are trying to understand its capabilities and utilize it to our advantage, thus enter quantum computing.

The best metaphor to understand quantum computing is to compare it to flipping a coin. In classic computing, you are viewing the coin when it’s in your hand, as the value is either heads or tails. However, in quantum computing, you are viewing the coin after you have flipped it up into the air, and the value can be either heads or tails. Instead of using a conventional bit that’s either 0 or 1, quantum computing uses bits that simultaneously represent 0 and 1 until it comes to a state of rest (Greenemeier, 2018). These quantum bits, referred to as qubits, build the foundation of quantum computers through two principles known as superposition and entanglement. Superposition is the idea that a qubit can exist in any proportion of states (0 or 1) until it is measured, or the idea highlighted by the analogy of flipping a coin in the air. The principle of superposition provides quantum computing with a distinct advantage over classic computing when you consider stringing together multiple bits. In a classic computer, 4 bits can have 16 possibilities (2^4) of different values, such as 1000, 1100, etc. However, 4 qubits in superposition can be in all 16 of those possibilities at once, and this number exponentially grows with more qubits. Thus, with 20 quibits, they could be in 1, 048, 576 possibilities all at once, enabling incredible computing power (Kurzgesagt, 2015). Another important principle of quantum computing is entanglement, which is the idea that qubits can display relationships between each other, reacting to a change in the other no matter how far they are apart. Therefore, when measuring one quibit, you can directly deduce properties of its linked partners without having to measure them (Kurzgesagt, 2015). Due to the principle of entanglement, it is theoretically possible for quantum computers to move massive amounts of data extremely efficiently. However, controlling these qubits and finding the right quantum architecture are the major challenges preventing the development of quantum computing (Seeker, 2018). 

If you are like me, you have probably heard the term “supercomputer” and are now wondering how it fits in with classic and quantum computing. Even though supercomputers are a little out of the scope of this assessment, I think it’s important to clear up any confusion with this terminology. Unfortunately, the definition of supercomputing depends on whom you ask. Some use supercomputing as a generic term for high performance computing, in which quantum computing is the next development, while others use the term to classify a type of classic computer with the power to analyze massive amounts of data at lightning quick speeds. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use the latter definition. Supercomputers are high performing computers comprised of thousands of processors that allow the computer to solve highly complex problem sets. Their performance is often measured in floating point operations per second instead of the traditional million instructions per second, simply due to their complexity (Brigham, 2018). Supercomputers take up vast amounts of space, the most powerful being larger than a professional basketball court but can handle complex data such as weather forecasting and pharmaceutical modeling. However, it is important to understand that at their core, supercomputers still function based off binary code, or the bits used within classic computing. Due to this reliance on standard bits, scientists predict that one day quantum computers will surpass even the most powerful supercomputers.  

Current Status of Technology

Quantum Computing

The best way to describe the current status in the development of quantum computing is to compare it to the 1950s era of classic computer development. Researchers are still working through the basic design phase, with wires everywhere and systems broken out for testing. Despite having some success along the way, the overall concept has yet to be fully proven or understood and the technology is not readily available (Seeker, 2018). Today’s quantum computers are not efficient enough or developed enough to outperform classic computers, but this could change soon. The question everyone wants to know then, is how soon? The short answer is maybe 10-15 years. The long answer is it depends, and we really don’t know.

Foremost, it is important to create a definition of success for quantum computing, so we can clarify the predicted forecasts in development. If the end goal is simply to create a quantum computer, then congratulations, we have already arrived. However, most scientists label the desired end state as “quantum supremacy, [or] when a quantum computer demonstrably and markedly outperforms a classical computer for any class of problems” (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). Based on this definition, we are still several years away at least, but the technology is developing rapidly. For perspective, the possibility of quantum computing was first proposed in 1982, followed by the world’s first operational quantum network in 2003, and then the introduction of a 5-qubit computing system in 2016 (Marr, 2018). The powerhouses of Google, IBM and Intel now lead the way in development, with Google recently unveiling a quantum test chip earlier this year with an industry leading 72 qubits (Conover, 2018). The chip is nicknamed Bristlecone and highlights the current goal of research, packing more and more qubits onto a processor chip (Conover, 2018). Not to be out done, IBM announced it was testing a 50-qubit quantum computer in November 2017 and Intel introduced a 49-qubit testing chip this past January (Conover, 2018). Reaching the 50-qubit mark is exciting from a scientific perspective because, in theory, we are right at the edge of surpassing the computing power of the most powerful supercomputers on earth (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). Based on projections from Intel, they claim that they might be able to produce a 1000 qubit system within 5 to 7 years (Hsu, 2018). Despite this optimistic forecast, many experts assert that at least 1 million qubit operating systems will be needed before quantum computers become commercially beneficial (Hsu, 2018). Predicting how far we are away from this occurring is simply a matter of opinion, with estimates ranging from a few years to more than a century. However, if you consider that major milestones in computer development have been roughly more than a decade apart – in example the first transistor appeared in 1947, then the integrated circuit in 1958 and finally the first microprocessor in 1971 (Greenemeier, 2018) – it is safe to reason that we are about 10-15 years from truly considering quantum supremacy. It is difficult to forecast though because just one breakthrough in a common problem area of quantum computing can greatly expedite the entire process, as with any developing technology.

The biggest problem currently facing researchers is the issue of stability with qubits. Recalling back on the analogy of flipping a coin, the reality is that the coin eventually stops flipping through the air and falls into a specific state, either heads or tails (Greenemeier, 2018). Qubits are difficult to keep in superposition as noise, temperature and electrical fluctuation all have an impact upon their state. A popular method in stabilizing qubits has been to keep them very cold, maintaining the systems just slightly above absolute zero, around -460. Another method uses trapped ion systems, created by laser beams in vacuum chambers, but requires intricate systems and the leading PhD minds in lasers (Greenemeier, 2018). Additionally, for all methods holding the quantum state once reached is extremely challenging. In November of last year, IBM announced the development of its 50-qubit quantum computer, but the system could only maintain its quantum microstate for 90 microseconds, and this was a record. The length at which information remains inside a qubit is known as the coherence time, and it is a major problem for scientists (Seeker, 2018). The best way to understand this issue is to picture the game of Perfection as researchers are working with the qubits in a state of superposition; scientists only have a certain amount of time to put all the pieces in the right place before the test bed throws everything out (Ball, TEDx  OIST, 2018). There is only a small amount of time for scientists to conduct calculations and perform tests before the environment affects the qubits and pulls it back to a specified state. Each of these systems described is impractical for commercial use and illuminate the fact that we are still in the early development stages of quantum computing. 

In addition to the technology superpowers of Intel, Google and IBM, there are many smaller start-up companies that could prove influential in the development of quantum computing. Two of these rising companies are Rigetti, based in California, and D-Wave, in Vancouver. Rigetti has dedicated a great deal of research to solving the stability issue of qubits and could be the first to develop a practical and functional quantum computer (Beall, Reynolds, 2018). D-Wave has already introduced a 2,000-qubit system, but this has been met with a lot of controversy (Beall, Reynolds, 2018). Many consider D-Wave’s machines to not be true quantum computers as they have yet to outperform classic computers and are designed to only handle optimization problems (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). While the systems have proven useful in certain research areas, their inability to analyze complex simulation problems and limited application has prevented their widespread acceptance (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). 

Supercomputers

Even though the focus of this assessment is on the development of quantum computing, it is still pertinent to get a sense of the current status of supercomputers to fully appreciate the entire technical landscape. While researchers advertise the ability of quantum computers to eventually surpass supercomputers in computing power, the reality is that currently supercomputers are the most reliable, stable and powerful. The first computer to earn the title supercomputer was the CDC 6600, built in 1964 and boasting a processing speed of 3 million calculations per second (Brigham, 2018). This sounds like a lot until you realize that today’s iPhones are tens of thousands of times faster (Brigham, 2018). The United States made headlines this past June, when the US Department of Energy’s funded lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, earned the top spot as creating the world’s most powerful supercomputer with the introduction of Summit (Top 500, 2018). The integration of over 36,000 processors from IBM and Nvidia helped form Summit, allowing the computer to perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second (Brigham, 2018). To provide some perspective, a calculation that might take your laptop 30 years to complete, can be accomplished by Summit in an hour (Brigham, 2018). One of the first projects to be given to Summit is researching possible genetic predispositions to cancer and opioid addiction, not exactly a straightforward problem (Brigham, 2018). The downside? The supercomputer takes up 5,600 square feet, contains 200 miles of cable, uses 4,000 gallons of water per minute to stay cool, consumes enough power to run 8,000 homes, and cost over $200 million to develop (Brigham, 2018). 

Rankings of the world’s most powerful supercomputers are published twice a year by Top 500 The List (See Appendix A for Top 10). Currently, the United States holds five of the top ten slots, with the positions of first, second, sixth, ninth and tenth (Top 500, 2018). The other technological powerhouse China holds two of the top 10 slots, in the positions of third and fourth, but held the top spot for two years before the introduction of Summit (Top 500, 2018). Switzerland, Japan and Germany help fill in the rest of the ten (Top 500, 2018). There is an intense supercomputer race developing and the European Union, Japan and China all claim to be developing machines that can outperform Summit (Brigham, 2018). The next major milestone in the supercomputing world is to reach exascale computing, or the ability for a system to perform a billion calculations every billionth of a second (Brigham, 2018). All this incredible processing power can be used for weather forecasting, studying climate trends, nuclear simulations, healthcare and science modeling, and cracking encryption keys (Brigham, 2018). 

Future Developments

Predicting the future for quantum computing is incredibly difficult. It can be compared to attempting to guess the effect that other revolutionary technological developments would have upon society at the time of their creation, such as the classic computer or the internet. For instance, I highly doubt that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, widely known as the Fathers of the Internet, were able to grasp the impact their idea would have upon communication, accessibility of information and the daily lives of humans across the world in their early days of development. Although researchers are making great progress in quantum computing and we understand the science more each day, it is impossible to foresee every offshoot of the developing technology. Additionally, while the technology appears to have a promising and pivotal role for the future, it is important to understand that quantum computing will most likely not replace classic computing entirely. Based on the optimistic outlooks of research, some people get the idea that they will be able to purchase a quantum laptop by the next decade, which is entirely unrealistic. Quantum computing has the potential to greatly enhance classic computing, but it’s not practical for all computing scenarios and will not become the societal standard, at least not in this generation. With these important points in mind, we will first look at the near-term goals that scientists are focusing on and then slowly expand our view to consider potential future applications of quantum computing. 

As discussed previously, the biggest problems facing researchers currently is controlling the stability of qubits and constructing the right quantum architecture (Seeker, 2018). Two methods for addressing the stability issue were mentioned earlier; the first being known as Superconducting qubits, which takes advantage of metal acting as a superconductor on a silicon chip when cooled to extreme temperatures (Seeker, 2018), and the second being the trapped ion system (Greenemeier, 2018). However, a third method, known as silicon spin qubits, is currently being explored and may provide greater success for the field. Spin qubits use microwave pulses to control the spin of electrons instead of extreme cold but is less developed than the more traditional superconducting qubit technology (Greenemeier, 2018). Additionally, some form of error correction is greatly needed in quantum computing, as the fragile quantum states can cause unpredictable and misunderstood results. As we are discovering, adding more and more qubits is producing a greater percentage of error, which begs the question are we really gaining more computing power by simply adding qubits? (Ball, TEDx OIST, 2018) Some skeptics even question if it’s possible to ever reach an error rate low enough in quantum computing to justify its use over classic computing (Ball, TEDx OIST, 2018). Finally, finding the right quantum architecture and local electronics to make all this possible is proving difficult. The right array of parts and code to map software algorithms, control individual qubits and output quantum results has yet to be discovered and could be waiting on the advancement of other electronics (Hsu, 2018). 

Where quantum computing gets its recognition and notoriety though, is what it can theoretically achieve in the near future. There are four critical areas of interest in the development of quantum computing. First, through the process of qubit manipulation, quantum computers can provide an entire solution set at once, opposed to classic computers which run through every iteration (Kurzgesagt, 2015). Quantum computing could cut computation time drastically, finding solutions to highly complex problem sets that are even too large for supercomputers. As an example, in 2016 Google used their prototype computer to calculate the electronic structure of a hydrogen molecule for the first time (Ball, 2016), demonstrating the capability of quantum computing but more importantly, highlighting its potential. The realization that quantum computing, once developed and scaled up, could possess the capability to model and possibly design complicated chemical reactions, essentially performing billions and billions of calculations simultaneously, opens the door to endless possibilities. Substantial advancements could be made in healthcare, energy production and materials science but the potential of quantum computing doesn’t stop there. Since quantum computing is based upon the operating system of nature, or quantum mechanics, scientists reason that it could provide us with insight into the world around us that is simply outside the capabilities of classic computing and binary logic (Seeker, 2018). 

Second, quantum computers possess the ability to analyze vast quantities of data and spot patterns quickly, theoretically enabling them to be well suited for solving key optimization problems (Seeker, 2018). Optimization problems are the idea that the best solution is found from a multitude of other correct, but less successful, solutions. Quantum computers could calculate how we can be more efficient in our daily lives, and this is where the offshoot of this technology becomes highly unpredictable. Try to imagine the possibilities if you possessed a computer that could calculate the best solution to any combination of input. Traffic patterns could become more efficient, energy consumption could greatly be reduced, climate modeling could become more accurate and predictable, and factories could drastically cut waste in their production methods, to simply name a few. 

Third, due to their advanced computational power, quantum computers could be theoretically well suited to solving mathematical problems, such as finding large prime numbers (Beall, Reynolds, 2018). However, because of this ability, quantum computers quickly become a severe risk to cybersecurity. The most common form of encryption is the RSA algorithm, which is based off the design code of multiplying two very large prime numbers together (Smith, 2018). If someone wants to decrypt the algorithm, then they essentially must work backwards, finding the two prime numbers based solely off the product, not an easy feat when numbers become exceptionally large (Smith, 2018). However, quantum computing could solve this problem rather easily, which puts virtually everything in the digital world in jeopardy. 

Fourth, there is a strong possibility that the developments made with quantum computing could help advance other technological fields, most notably artificial intelligence and machine learning. Both these fields have displayed great potential to the future of technology and are relatively more developed than quantum computing. However, there are still plenty of gaps in research, but scientists are hoping that pairing the technologies together could solve some of these issues. We are currently discovering the limits of classic computing, as wide-scale artificial intelligence is becoming more readily available (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). Due to this issue, there are several start-up companies and university groups that are looking into quantum chips specifically designed for AI algorithms, and many believe there is more promise here than standalone quantum chips (Greenemeier, 2018).  

Applications / Recommendations of Quantum Technology for Homeland Security

After reviewing the possible future developments that could stem from quantum computing in general, it is easy to see how this developing technology could greatly enhance the national security mission. Quantum computing is a viable technology for the issues and concerns pertaining to homeland security and its potential applications deserve to be examined more closely. In addition to quantum computing, there have been a few other offshoots of quantum technology that could be equally beneficial to protecting America’s critical infrastructure. The following applications encompass all aspects of quantum technology and are more oriented to the Department of Homeland Security’s, or similar departments and agencies, mission. Technological applications that are currently being considered, additional ideas for further implementation and areas where the U.S. should place greater emphasis upon, will all be presented. While these ideas are not listed in any specific order, the variety in applications should once again highlight the potential for quantum technology to affect countless areas.

Cybersecurity

Even if the United States doesn’t do anything else with quantum technology, we need to at least be concerned about the grave risk it poses to cybersecurity. Last year a forum ran by the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), highlighted this risk by stating, “The well-known ability of quantum algorithms to factor the product of two very large prime numbers threatens the foundation of most public key encryption schemes in use today” (CIRI, 2018). Peter Shor, an applied mathematics professor at MIT, completely negated the functionality of almost all modern encryption when he proposed his algorithm for quantum computing that could theoretically defeat the aforementioned RSA algorithm (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). Almost instantaneously, the NSA jumped on this concept and funded a great deal of money to research to see if Shor’s algorithm was possible and to get a better understanding of quantum computing. The NSA provided a statement claiming, “the potential impact of adversarial use of a quantum computer is known and without effective mitigation is devastating to NSS [National Security Suite of Cryptographic Algorithms]” (NSA, CSS, 2016). The NSA is still actively researching the implementation of Shor’s algorithm but their progress or any key findings is relatively unknown due to the classified nature of the material. However, other scientists reviewed Shor’s algorithm and initial estimates conclude that a quantum computer containing anywhere between 50 million – 2.65 trillion qubits would be required to perform the algorithm at any relevant scale to conduct quantum cyber-attacks (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). For perspective, today we are right at the 50-qubit operating mark and projections show we might hit 1000 qubits by the 2025 time frame; so, in summary, we are a long way out from this being a legitimate threat (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). 

Despite these long-term projections, researchers and mathematicians are already reviewing ways to modify the RSA algorithm and defend it against quantum technology (Wadhwa, Salkever, 2018). Referred to as quantum resistant cryptography, these new algorithms are being developed that will supposedly be impenetrable to cryptographic attacks from both classical and quantum computers (NSA, CSS, 2016). However, it’s important to understand that the solutions we are devising today still fundamentally stem from a classic computing base. Unless new encryption methods are developed in tandem with quantum computing research, these new algorithms will most likely be simple delays. Additionally, to elevate the importance of this issue, we must consider the era of post quantum cryptography and how we can secure today’s information for the future(CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). Everything is being collected and stored in some fashion, and once quantum cryptography arrives, how do we ensure the safety of our historical information that is still deemed sensitive or private? Altogether, this adds fuel to the argument that the U.S. cannot afford to be second to the table in reaching quantum supremacy. If China or Russia were able to develop quantum cryptography first, simply imagine the proficiency of the cyberattacks they would be capable of and the catastrophic consequences that would ensue for the U.S. 

Optimization Problems

As discussed earlier, quantum computing could theoretically be well suited for optimization problems or finding the best solution possible despite numerous other correct answers. On its surface this idea is extremely open ended but consider its application and benefit to numerous critical infrastructure sectors. Consider the following potential applications:


- Emergency Services Sector – pre-placement and placement of emergency response assets to specific threats, natural disasters, or relief aid that can allocate resources more effectively

- Energy Sector – improving efficiency in energy consumption and allocation by monitoring its use and cutting waste

- Food and Agriculture Sector – creating better harvest by monitoring weather and optimizing the time and location to plant crops

- Transportation Systems Sector – establishing better traffic patterns, bus routes and metro services based on the movement patterns of the local populous

- Nuclear Reactors, Materials and Waste Sector – creating more productive nuclear reactions for energy use and decreasing the chances of meltdowns

- Healthcare and Public Health Sector – creating more potent medicine to fighting diseases that is more compatible with the human body


One specific example that is gaining a lot of traction and could prove to make drastic improvements for the food and agriculture sector, is the improvement of the Haber Bosch process. The Haber Bosch process is a method of producing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen, by inducing a chemical reaction through the addition of a catalyst and placement in a high-pressure system (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). The process has now become the industry norm as the integral part in the production of fertilizer but is inherently wasteful (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). Through quantum computing, we could theoretically model this reaction, enabling us with a better understanding of the process and the ability to optimize the chemical reaction, improving the efficiency exponentially. By making the Haber Bosch Process more effective, we could drastically improve how we grow and distribute food to humans around the world. The improvement of the Haber Bosch process is just one of the many examples in which quantum computing could play a significant role to critical infrastructure. Every single critical infrastructure sector could stand to benefit from the optimization ability of quantum computing. 

Smart Cities

The Science and Technology Directorate of DHS has already expressed an interest in developing Smart Cities, which will dramatically impact how critical infrastructure sectors will collaborate (DHS, n.d.). Quantum computing could greatly advance the development of Smart Cities, as it essentially becomes an optimization problem. For Smart Cities to succeed, government must fundamentally rely upon some form of genuine, dependable public input and response to direct city managed efforts. Quantum technology can help provide the computing effort necessary to analyzing this vast amount of information and optimize solutions. For example, consider the current phone application Waze for driving directions. Based on users’ inputs, the application automatically calculates your fastest route between two destinations while accounting for traffic, police, road closures, construction, etc. If we applied this same concept to a city travel experience, encompassing all travel options including bus, metro, bike, walking and taxi, we could possess a very powerful application. Users could save time in knowing they chose the fastest route possible and city managers could analyze the data to better plan for things like bus routes, emergency services, parking, etc. A computing system that could analyze this immense amount of data and optimize results would be necessary, and quantum computing could prove to be the answer. 

Quantum Metrology

Quantum Metrology is the study of obtaining high resolution, precise and sensitive measurements by utilizing the principles of quantum theory (CIRI, 2018). It sets the standards for defining units of measurement and other high-precision studies, essentially being the ultimate form of accuracy (Nature.com, 2018). While quantum metrology may sound better suited for the academic world of research, it also has the potential to greatly influence the homeland security and defense industry. Some possible applications include: atomic clocks for standardizing time across several systems, electromagnetic fields in healthcare for accurate imaging and treatment, high spatial resolution for imaging and terrain analysis, underground void/hardened structure detection, and inertial navigation for improved positioning systems (CIRI, 2018) (CNAS, Biercuk, 2017). Overall, quantum metrology could improve the accuracy and precision of any scale, sensor, or measuring device used by any critical infrastructure sector. Furthermore, the real threat or advantage, depending on who acquires the technology, is what can be done once these improved sensors are paired with existing technology. For example, last year China reportedly developed a new magnetometer, which are used for detecting submarines, by integrating an array of superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUID) to an existing platform (New Scientist, 2017). Researchers estimate that a submarine paired with this new SQUID system could detect other submarines up to 6 kilometers away, far greater than any system in use today(New Scientist, 2017). Considering no Western force knowingly possesses similar technology, there is reason to believe that China could eventually, if not already, have the most sensitive submarine detector in the world (New Scientist, 2017). 

Quantum Communication

An exciting offshoot in the development of quantum computing has been the discovery of quantum communication, more specifically quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD allows two participants to establish a secure communication channel by using a long, secret shared key that informs both participants if any of the key bits are compromised in the transmission (CIRI, 2018). Therefore, if a third-party tries to intercept any part of the communication, both participants will witness it and can end the transmission (CIRI, 2018). QKD is relatively more developed than quantum computing, progressing closer to commercialization through tangible results and functional demonstrations (CIRI,2018). However, it is not fully developed as it has been discovered that certain arrangements of hardware can be prone to backdoor interception, known as side-channel leaks, in which the communication is intercepted unbeknownst to the participants (CIRI, 2018). Finding the correct hardware and the correct array of hardware to prevent these leaks is currently preventing its implementation (CIRI, 2018). Additionally, more research is needed to lower the error rate in transmissions before it will be acceptable to the homeland security and defense industry (CIRI, 2018). If these problems can be addressed, QKD might provide a method for secure and dependable communication, a much-welcomed technology in today’s world of leaked information. Once again, almost every one of DHS’s critical infrastructures could stand to benefit from this technology, but most certainly those dealing with classified and sensitive information.

Collaboration and National Strategy

Due to the great potential of quantum computing, it is no secret that the U.S. is not the only country interested in the technology, but several others are more aggressively pursuing it. In May 2016, the European Union published the Quantum Manifesto, a strategic assessment calling upon European collaboration to aggressively pursue the development of quantum technologies (EU, 2016). The Manifesto expresses the desire for Europe to lead the second quantum revolution, details a timeline of technological development from 2015-2035, highlights specific short, medium and long-term research goals, and encourages international collaboration across academia and industry (EU, 2016). Additionally, and more alarming, China revealed last year a $10 billion research facility dedicated to quantum research (Greenemeier, 2018). If an adversary reaches quantum supremacy before the U.S., the consequences could be catastrophic. The U.S. cannot afford to be second to the table in developing quantum computing, mostly due to the risks in cybersecurity, and a greater emphasis on research conducted within the U.S. is needed. Unfortunately, right now roughly two-thirds of the workforce with quantum research experience is overseas, highlighting the fact that the U.S. is behind the curve (Greenmeier, 2018).​

The Department of Homeland Security recognized the potential of quantum computing, and through the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, hosted a forum last year to encourage collaboration between international experts in various fields to brainstorm applications. The forum focused on the developing technologies of Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Information Processing and how they might enhance the security of our critical infrastructure (CIRI, 2018). Additionally, in May of this year, The U.S. House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection held a hearing regarding quantum computing, and there have been several others in which the technology has been discussed (Greenemeier, 2018). While these efforts were a good start, a national strategy to developing, pursuing and monitoring advancement in quantum computing had been lacking for quite some time. Following the major efforts by China and the EU, the United States finally drafted a national strategy to quantum technologies in September of this year. 

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC)issued a 19-page document following a quantum technological summit entitled National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science, which was the first major step by policymakers to addressing the importance of quantum research (NSTC, 2018). The purpose of the overview is to improve coordination between government, public and private institutions, focus on expanding a viable quantum-smart workforce, encourage establishment of strong cross-community connections and to maintain a culture of discovery to further understand the technology’s possibly impact upon the economy and national security (NSTC, 2018). However, the best and most significant element of the entire overview was the emphasis placed upon collaboration, between academia, industry, government and international entities. It is unrealistic for any one country or institution to progress quantum technology on its own, particularly this early in development. The United States government can be the backbone of innovation though, by encouraging the brightest minds across the nation, and across the globe, to collaborate in their research. In addition to the overview, the NSTC created the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, aimed at furthering U.S. leadership in “global quantum research and development and the emerging quantum industry in computing, communications and sensing” (NIST, 2018). Establishment of this consortium is exactly how the U.S. government can fuel the advancement of quantum technologies, and more importantly, monitor its progression to mitigate developing threats. The overview and consortium are too young to analyze any long-term effects, but they are definitely a step in the right direction. As we move forward, it is vital to understand that these cannot be stand-alone efforts, as quantum research needs to be continually monitored, funded and reviewed through future administrations. Unfortunately, the reality is the U.S. is late to the party. U.S. policymakers seem to finally understand the significance of quantum development but it is following major moves by China and the EU. Only time will tell if this delay matters, but the U.S. needs to continually find ways to turn the tide in research and initiative to ensure we aren’t left out of the quantum revolution. 

Conclusion

The field of quantum technology is rapidly growing and could prove to be the defining mark of the 21st century. To think that we went from mere conception of the technology to 50-qubit operating systems in roughly a quarter century is truly remarkable and a testament to human innovation. Quantum computing could exponentially enhance the power of analysis in all facets of society by improving upon the efficiency of database searching, augmenting our ability to solve optimization problems and producing more intricate modeling for deeper understanding. As researchers continue to study superposition, entanglement and other key principles of quantum mechanics, we learn a little more each day of this strange but powerful science. We may still be in the early phases of development and might have to wait 10-15 years for the next significant accomplishment in the quantum story, but the time is well worth the wait for the incredible potential of this technology and its future applications. While homeland security might not be at the forefront of quantum scientists’ minds, the technology’s potential to greatly influence cybersecurity, optimization problems, smart cities, metrology and communication should be enough reason for every U.S. organization concerned with national security to take notice. The development of quantum technology must be actively cultivated and monitored though, by encouraging a global collaborative environment to share and build upon research. A balance between encouraging international research support while driving a U.S. agenda to lead the development must be struck, stemming from policymakers. The issuing of the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science and the creation of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium was a much welcomed and much needed step from the U.S., but these cannot be stand-alone efforts. The U.S. cannot afford to receive the silver medal in the quantum technology race because the possible effects to national security, economy and workforce could be catastrophic. Only time will tell what the second quantum revolution has in store for the world; the big question though, is will U.S. national security exploit the technology, or be exploited by the technology? 


Appendix A: Top 500 List of Supercomputers

November 2018 List posted directly from https://www.top500.org/lists/2018/11/

(Top 500, 2018)  

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Tyler Dick is a graduate student at Georgetown University, studying Applied Intelligence at the School of Continuing Studies. He is also currently interning as an Intelligence Analyst at the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. He was previously employed by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, working as a Flight Test Control Engineer within the Integrated Fighter Group. Tyler received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech.