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Practical planning for a quantum future

Quantum information technologies stand to revolutionize government security. Exactly when that will happen is yet unknown, but a new report stresses that it’s not too soon for agencies to begin preparing.

Deloitte Insights’  “The realist’s guide to quantum technology and national security” offers a way for nontechnical government leaders to start learning about quantum information science.  The Energy Department defines (QIS) as “the ability to exploit intricate quantum mechanical phenomena to create fundamentally new ways of obtaining and processing information.”  It’s based on quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that describes the behavior of matter at the subatomic scale.

Specifically, quantum technologies allow for the manipulation of individual atoms to exploit their properties to accomplish things that were previously impossible, said Scott Buchholz, Deloitte Consulting’s CTO for government and public services and national emerging tech research director, who is one of the report authors.

Some molecular-level simulations – those involving pharmaceuticals or advanced materials, for example -- are much easier to conduct with quantum computing. “In fact, there are problems where we may not be able to simulate them using a classical computer ever, and they may be entirely feasible to do with quantum computers,” Buchholz said.

One of the most promising use cases for QIS is in communications. Using two properties of quantum particles -- entanglement and superposition -- subatomic particles can interact and share information in ways electronic components cannot. When two subatomic particles – often photons, or light particles – are  entangled, any change to one also changes the other regardless of how far apart they are. For quantum-secure communications, one particle could be placed on a submarine and other onshore.

“In principle, if you were to try to interrupt the communication, it’s visible because the entanglement of the two particles makes it so that any change you make on one impacts the other and vice versa,” Buchholz said.

China recently transmitted quantum memories – tiny bundles of rubidium atoms – between two entangled clouds of atoms separated by more than 30 miles.

Although “quantum” is still new in the IT arena, quantum mechanics have been around since the early 1900s as scientists gained more understanding of atoms’ properties. Now technology and engineering are at a point where the quantum-enabled technologies can become useful.

Buchholz  likens it to the emergence of classical computing in the mid-20th century when calculating machines were evolving from mechanical to electronic and then digital designs. Now, we’re moving toward quantum machines, learning how to “use the nascent capabilities available today combined with classical computers -- and the world is calling that hybrid classical quantum computation -- where you do some of the work in the cloud and you do some of the work on the quantum computer,” he said.

Even with much of QIS still in the research phase, agencies can start to prepare for the technologies in two ways, he said. First, they can have employees familiarize themselves with QIS and explore the challenges it might solve. That includes evaluating existing data and deciding whether it must remain encrypted in a post-quantum computing world.

The second way is to maintain solid cyber hygiene and strong cybersecurity. Quantum computing will likely be able to crack today’s encryption schemes, so securing agency systems  will keep adversaries from stealing data to decrypt, Buchholz said.

“That’s the single biggest way to keep out of trouble both today and several years from now,” he said. “If you think about the history of computing, things tend to go really quickly when you hit a tipping point, and it’s not 100% clear when that tipping point will be, but what is clear is that people are working really, really, really hard to get there.”

In January, DOE announced plans to spend up to $625 million in the next five years to set up two to five QIS research centers in support of the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018, and its fiscal 2021 budget request specified funds to support early-stage research into establishing a Quantum Network.

“QIS is currently at the threshold of a potentially disruptive revolution, creating opportunities and challenges for the Nation, as growing international interest and investments are starting a global quantum race,” the agency’s budget request states. “DOE envisions a future in which the cross-cutting field of QIS increasingly drives scientific frontiers and innovations toward realizing the full potential of quantum-based applications, from computing to sensing, connected through a quantum internet.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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