U.S. still leads in quantum computing — for now

For the time being, the United States is still the global leader in quantum computing but the Chinese are quickly eroding America’s edge.

The U.S. intelligence community has said recently that quantum computing may become one of the most significant technology investments that are made today. However, several intel experts and analysts are concerned about what may happen if the capability is achieved first by another great power.

One capability being discussed is quantum cryptology, which would be possible via quantum computing. That has major national security implications as it could make reading messages from adversaries impossible while enabling foes to more quickly and easily decode protected intelligence.

Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, said the U.S. was leading in the development of quantum computing — for the time being.

“This is an area in which the U.S. has a lead in part because of a large investment by the federal government in quantum computing research,” he said during a Defense Writers Group breakfast March 14. “China is investing but not at the levels that the United States has.”

He estimates that the U.S. and/or other great powers are at least two decades away from developing quantum computing as it would be relevant to quantum encryption, adding that the field of quantum physics is itself challenging.

Meanwhile, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, told a congressional panel in prepared testimony that the U.S. would be at a significant technological disadvantage if a potential adversary were to develop quantum computing first.

“Adversaries are giving priority to researching quantum-enabled communications and quantum computing, which could supply the means to field highly secure communication systems and eventually to break certain encryption algorithms,” his testimony read. “The challenge for predicting the next emerging and disruptive technology for the future is anticipating the follow-on effects of seemingly innocuous technologies that are evolving today.”

Matheny, however, said more research is needed in quantum-resistant encryption.

“One of the reasons that we invest is so that we understand where the state of the art is, understand a bit about what the timelines are so that we can deploy quantum-resistant encryption when it’s critical,” he said. “But given that we want to protect classified data for 20-plus years typically by policy, it does mean that we should probably be pursuing quantum-resisting encryption with a lot of energy.” [source]

Analysis: China, meanwhile, is certainly challenging the U.S. in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), though Matheny said the U.S. maintains a lead for now and that he’s not a “catastrophist” when it comes to the race against China in this area.

Still, it’s the pace of Chinese AI development that has many in the U.S. concerned. That’s because China has dedicated a huge amount of resources to the field, hoping to lead the rest of the world in AI development. “The Chinese are spending $150 billion [on AI] by 2030… hopefully we will spend more than the $1.2 billion we spend now,” said SparkCognition CEO Amir Husain.

Another part of the reason why China’s AI development is continuing apace is the difference in Chinese and American societies and civil liberties. “The issue is… China is more liberal in allowing large scale experiments,“ Husain added. “The level of data you can gather when you’ve got 5 million cameras deployed and the kinds of objects and situations you see will allow you to build better training systems… They will have a leg up on.”

Also, he lamented the slow, byzantine pace at which the Pentagon’s bureaucracy works to acquire new technologies.

“I live in a world where there is a revolution every 60 days. So seven years is 40 generations,” he said. “You buy tanks in one way, and you’ve got to buy algorithms in a different way.”

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said that what’s needed is more attention and pressure from the top — beginning in the White House — for a ‘whole of country’ research effort aimed at developing AI. He notes as well that the symbiotic relationship between Chinese society and the military is not something that is likely to develop in the United States, so the effort has to resemble a government-centric approach that would likely mirror the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

“To have a national response you have to have a national push from above,” he said. “In my view, it must start from the White House,” he added, citing the influence of President Lyndon B. Johnson during the United States’ successful quest to go to the moon in the late 1960s.

He also said: “We are going to need some help from Congress. Either a caucus or someone who takes this as a leadership position.” [source]

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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