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About the Author

Sean Silbert is Senior Advisor for Science, Technology, and Innovation at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Washington, DC.

Perspective

Don’t Let Concern Over Quantum Technologies Limit International Collaboration

Governments have poured vast sums into the quantum computing race. The White House has named quantum an “industry of the future,” on par with artificial intelligence and 5G, committing to doubling quantum information research and development budgets by 2022, from a baseline of $435 million.1 China has dedicated $10 billion to building the world’s largest quantum laboratory, and has listed quantum as a pillar of its 14th Five Year Plan. The European Commission has put more than $1 billion towards its quantum flagship program over ten years, with France ($2.2 billion), Germany ($3.1 billion) and the Netherlands ($904 million) also looking to establish themselves as global centers of expertise in quantum.2

Why are nations spending massive sums on something that sounds like science fiction? Some experts speculate that global leadership in quantum information science and technology (QIST) may determine the future of international politics.3 The increased power of quantum computers can benefit society, from supporting more accurate artificial intelligence towards modeling solutions to future pandemics. While quantum technologies carry many promising applications for government sponsorship, such as more accurate clocks for precision navigation, quantum simulation for research, or sensors for underground mapping,4 quantum computers may also be integral to national security. The power of a quantum computer can potentially run Shor’s algorithm, a complex equation which can undermine commonly used cryptography systems—allowing anyone with a sufficiently powerful quantum computer to read messages or files from governments, militaries, or corporate competitors.5 And anyone who wants to know the secrets of their adversaries only needs to download the relevant information now in anticipation of eventually getting their hands on a quantum computer.

But to many policy makers, the most pressing concern is that they are first to get there. The U.S. Department of Defense is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on advances in quantum encryption,6 and the bipartisan US Innovation and Competition Act—a pending $250 billion package which would invest in tech for U.S. international competitiveness – as well as its House counter-proposal, the America COMPETES Act include a call for research on quantum encryption.7 Ensuring technological supremacy means support for quantum technologies is paired with restrictions: export controls and new rules on researchers aimed at keeping knowledge in known hands.

These restrictions will impede the progress of quantum technology by walling it off from international talent and capital. The U.S. Commerce Department has already limited exports on quantum computing to China and has added major Chinese tech companies to its investment blacklist – including blocking the export of quantum computing technology to eight Chinese companies and labs to protect national security.8 President Biden has further assembled a task force9 reviewing the strategy to respond to China’s tech development. Europe, too, is tying quantum technologies into its discussion of “strategic autonomy” in innovation, security, and defense.

Recognizing the need for cooperation to share advances, some international agreements have already been signed. The U.S. has reached out to many of the global leaders in quantum technologies, signing letters of intent with the governments of the United Kingdom10 and Australia11 in November 2021. The U.S. has cooperated with Japan to promote QIST since 2019.12 Bilateral statements of cooperation like these are helpful in setting a framework in which quantum technology cooperation can continue, creating a shared knowledge base and opportunities to drive new discoveries.

There is a need for these international agreements and other forms of multistakeholder action to ensure that allies work together and define how researchers shape this emerging, powerful technology. This is especially true in areas like setting standards, where multiple countries need to collaborate to be effective. Consider the shock the UK, Israel, and Switzerland’s science communities—all major quantum technology investors—felt in being excluded from the EU’s flagship quantum research program, in order to protect national security.13 The international quantum community is small enough that these restrictions can create significant challenges to progress, as they limit research to only the best-funded actors in an expensive and skill-intensive industry.

That is not to say that there should be no restrictions. The business and government communities should be proactive to avoid vulnerabilities in implementation and address thorny issues, like how to regulate systems with the capability to both hurt and harm. Quantum researchers have called for further conversations around the ethical implications of the technology.14 There is a need for a legal framework to clarify the rules of use and avoid the risks of increased computing power for encryption, data security, and cyber warfare.15 Even those who believe that existing law is sufficient contend that accountability must be increased;16 clarifying how powerful new technologies should be used might help prevent the consequences of their abuse. It is not yet evident whether a cyber-attack qualifies as the use of force,17 but an attack that causes considerable economic damage could certainly be constituted as such.18

We must not let the promise of quantum computing technology be subsumed by our fears of what it can do in the hands of malignant actors. Quantum technologies offer us vast amounts of computing power to put towards resolving many existing and future problems. But if we focus on how much damage it could cause and do not set rules to prevent such damage, we will limit how much we can achieve.

 

Endnotes

  1. National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science, “National Quantum Initiative Supplement to the President’s FY 2021 Budget,” January 2021, www.quantum.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/NQI-Annual-Report-FY2021.pdf.
  2. “Overview on Quantum Initiatives Worldwide - Update Mid 2021,” Qureca, July 19, 2021, www.qureca.com/overview-on-quantum-initiatives-worldwide-update-mid-2021.
  3. Elsa B. Kania and John Costello, “Quantum Hegemony?” Center for a New American Security, September 12, 2018, www.cnas.org/publications/reports/quantum-hegemony.
  4. “Quantum Leap: Atomic Sensing for the Military,” Global Defence Technology 96 (February 2019), https://defence.nridigital.com/global_defence_technology_feb19/quantum_leap_atomic_sensing_for_the_military.
  5. Jennifer Chu, “The Beginning of the End for Encryption Schemes?” MIT News, March 3, 2016, https://news.mit.edu/2016/quantum-computer-end-encryption-schemes-0303.
  6. David Vergun, “Quantum Science to Deliver Cutting-Edge Technology to Warfighters, Official Says,” Department of Defense News, February 23, 2021, www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2509192/quantum-science-to-deliver-cutting-edge-technology-to-warfighters-official-says.
  7. “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021,” S. 1260, 117th Cong. (2021), www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1260/text.
  8. Stephen Shankland, “US blocks export of quantum computing tech to Chinese organizations.” Cnet, November 24, 2021. https://www.cnet.com/tech/computing/us-blocks-export-of-quantum-computin...
  9. Justin Sink and Jenny Leonard, “Biden Says Pentagon Task Force Will Review U.S. China Strategy,” Bloomberg, February 10, 2021, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-10/biden-says-pentagon-task-force-will-review-u-s-china-strategy.
  10. U.S. Department of State, “Cooperation in Quantum Information Sciences and Technologies,” November 4, 2021, www.state.gov/cooperation-in-quantum-information-sciences-and-technologies-uk.
  11. U.S. Department of State, “Cooperation in Quantum Science and Technology,” November 17, 2021, www.state.gov/cooperation-in-quantum-science-and-technology-aus.
  12. U.S. Department of State, “Tokyo Statement on Quantum Cooperation,” December 19, 2019, www.state.gov/tokyo-statement-on-quantum-cooperation.
  13. Éanna Kelly, “Israel, Switzerland and UK Face Exclusion from Major EU Quantum and Space Research Projects,” Science Business, March 9, 2021, accessed November 30, 2021, https://sciencebusiness.net/framework-programmes/news/israel-switzerland-and-uk-face-exclusion-major-eu-quantum-and-space.
  14. Sara Castellanos, “Quantum Computing Scientists Call for Ethical Guidelines,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/quantum-computing-scientists-call-for-ethical-guidelines-11612155660.
  15. Mauritz Kop, “Establishing a Legal-Ethical Framework for Quantum Technology,” Yale Journal of Law and Technology, March 30, 2021, accessed November 30, 2021, https://yjolt.org/blog/establishing-legal-ethical-framework-quantum-technology.
  16. Duncan Hollis, “A Brief Primer on International Law and Cyberspace,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 14, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/14/brief-primer-on-international-law-and-cyberspace-pub-84763.
  17. Matthew C. Waxman, “Cyber Attacks as ‘Force’ Under UN Charter Article 2(4),” International Law Studies 87, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1075&context=ils.
  18. Michael N. Schmitt, “Taming the Lawless Void: Tracking the Evolution of International Law Rules for Cyberspace,” Texas National Security Review 3, no. 3 (Autumn 2020), https://tnsr.org/2020/07/taming-the-lawless-void-tracking-the-evolution-of-international-law-rules-for-cyberspace.