Why has the USA (United States of America), UK (United Kingdom) and Canada invested more than $1 billion in their respective National Quantum research programmes? Why is China currently building the world’s largest quantum laboratory? Simply because quantum technology is that valuable. Many other countries have prioritised quantum research, including Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Singapore and Australia in the hope to boost their competitiveness in the international arena. Quantum technology has become the new ‘nuclear power’, the country with quantum hegemony would gain a substantial strategic advantage in both military and economic domains. The sword is, however, double edged, any country lagging could suffer from a compromised national security. Additionally, quantum technology could aid in other missions, including counterterrorism and drug discovery.
Gaining a comparative advantage: Quantum computing
What if a country was able to access classified and sensitive government information from a competing state? The prospect of such a capability is frightening, mainly because information is now considered a major commodity of international relations and the state with this capability would have an immense strategic advantage. Quantum computing in the USA represents a significant part of its internal investment. As early as 2014, the National Security Agency (NSA) began its race to build a computer that could break most global encryptions used to protect banking, medical, business and government records. The current encryption technique used globally exploits the difficulty of dividing large numbers into prime factors which is theoretically breakable using Shor’s algorithm. Classical computers would take many years to crack the encryption because they manipulate individual bits which store information as either a state of 0 or 1 (binary code). Whereas, quantum computers manipulate qubits which can store information in what is known as a superposition of states which allows quantum computers to break an encryption exponentially faster than classical computers.
Although quantum computing technology has been successful, currently the largest quantum computer is Google’s 72-qubit quantum computer. Many experts in the field indicate that it may still be 10-20 years before a quantum computer with enough qubits to break classical encryption is developed. The possibility of such a capability is enough to warrant concern of a possible crypto-apocalypse, similar to the concern of a nuclear Armageddon. The USA has already indicated its concern with the Chinese development of similar technologies. Earlier this year, the USA revoked 1,000 Chinese student and researcher visas. This is in line with the announcement by Donald Trump to limit the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to leverage student and researcher visa programs to acquire USA technologies, intellectual property and information to develop advanced weapons systems in China. A senior USA state department official quoted quantum technology as a primary concern. The prioritisation of securing quantum technology by the USA demonstrates a major threat to national security accompanied with losing the quantum computing race.
The USA is racing for quantum computational supremacy, China however, seems to be running a different race. This makes the prospect of a crypto-apocalypse less likely. Whilst the USA races to gain the ability of cracking current encryption technology, China is racing to counteract the threat this ability would have on their national security. China is racing to use quantum communication to create an uncrackable encryption process.
Improving Cybersecurity: Quantum communication
Quantum communication could provide the opportunity for hyper secure communication, minimising the risk of cyber-attacks. Quantum communication exploits superpositions to create an information channel that is cryptographically secure. This process in quantum communication is called quantum key exchange which creates a channel that allows a reliable passage of qubits. Allowing information to be securely transferred between Alice and Bob. If a third-party eavesdropper, Eve, tries to intercept the string, she would disturb the state of the qubits and Alice and Bob will be notified of the interference and the message will become unreadable. Countries such as Australia and China have invested in quantum communication research. The Australian government has even implemented a secure line using quantum key exchange between parliament and government organisations. Considering the value of data and the increase in cyber-crime and hacking, the importance and usefulness of a secure information transfer channel is understandably vital. Quantum technology, although proven to be able to protect information, could also protect civilians in counterterrorist missions using drones.
Defence and Counterterrorism: Quantum sensing technology
Although the use of drones in counterterrorist missions have decreased the number of civilian casualties, these drones still have weaknesses and collateral damage is possible. In a USA airstrike in Mosul in 2017, an estimated 200 civilians were killed. The need for improved accuracy in drone technology is ever increasing due to the proliferation of terrorism and increased use of drones in counterterrorism.
Quantum sensing technologies can measure various physical quantities by utilising the hypersensitivity of certain quantum systems. Quantum sensing technology could improve navigation accuracy. Quantum navigation systems could assist in dense urban environments where Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) signals can be disabled or blocked by large buildings. Reliable navigation systems within dense urban environments could be used for counter-terrorist missions which usually have to be carried out within dense civilian areas. Quantum sensing can also be used to image objects which are unable to be imaged using classical imaging systems. Many counterterrorism operations require a specific target to be identified such as an extremist group leader. Drones which use quantum sensing to improve target detection, classification and identification could reduce the risk of a target being falsely identified. Civilian casualties can also be caused by a lack of detection of threats such as explosive devices. Fitting drones with a quantum gravimeter, which measures slight changes in the Earth’s gravitational field indicating the presence of objects below the ground. This could improve the detection and therefore elimination of threats and decrease civilian casualties.
Additionally, quantum gravimeters can detect the presence of oil, gas and mineral deposits. Oil, for example is a limited resource. For countries whose economies depend on oil exports such as Saudi Arabia, the ability to accurately locate concealed oil deposits could provide the economic security of knowing the location and quantity of oil reserves. Ultimately, minimising the cost of extensive seismological surveys for probable reserves.
Quantum technology and simulation could provide a possibly endless list of economic opportunities. One fascinating possibility is the improved speed of drug discovery. D-Wave, a Canadian tech company has already begun research using their quantum computers to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Considering the devastating consequences experienced by many countries as a result of national lockdowns, the ability to develop a vaccine to a novel virus in a timely manner, could be a great asset to a state. For example, China has already used the prospect of a successful vaccine to mend relations with states of a particular interest to China. China has pledged quick access to a successful Chinese vaccine to the Philippines. They have pledged $1 billion worth of loans to Latin American and Caribbean countries to buy the vaccine and pledged 100 000 free doses of the vaccine to Bangladesh. The opportunity which China has recognised and seized to use successful vaccines to improve allied relations would further be advantageous if China could use quantum simulation to develop the vaccine within days, rather than the many months which it is currently taking to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
Quantum technology has already grabbed the attention of many state governments, attracting large investments into research and development. Whether the motive for these investments are fuelled by threat or opportunity, the vast possible applications of quantum technologies is exciting and the presence and importance of quantum technology in the future, should not be underestimated.
Laura is in her final year of BPolSci International Studies degree at the University of Pretoria and is concurrently completing a level 4 NALP paralegal diploma. She hopes to complete her honors in International Relations in 2021 and pursue a career in the field of Public International Law and Human Rights. Laura is one of the permanent members of the writing staff at The Art of Politics.