What is America’s biggest national security threat on the horizon?

Is it North Korea, Russia, China, or arguably the national debt?  Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman says it depends on who wins the race to build the first large-scale quantum computer. He makes his case in a review of David Ignatius’s new thriller, The Quantum Spy, in the February 5 issue of National Review.

Hudson says that though quantum computing will put unimaginable scientific miracles within our reach, it will also make cyber-security systems, including vital national secrets, vulnerable to being cracked “in an instant.”

Today quantum computers are the stuff not of fiction but of engineering reality, and right now there is a race to achieve what scientists call “quantum supremacy,” which is when a single quantum computer can outperform even the most advanced conventional computers. In the United States, Google, Microsoft, and IBM have all built actual working quantum computers and are now steadily approaching the threshold of quantum supremacy. But China is currently outspending the U.S. government 30 to 1 to beat everyone to the quantum brass ring. While our government doles out $200 million a year to various agencies doing quantum research, Beijing has launched a $10 billion crash program to build a 4 million–square-foot national quantum laboratory in the city of Heifi in order to equip its armed forces with key quantum technologies, and has already launched the world’s first quantum satellite able to send messages using quantum-encryption technology that can’t be hacked, ever.

How do quantum computers work?

In the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, electrons and photons can be in two states at once (physicists call this “superposition”). All current computers, even supercomputers, process data in a linear sequence of ones and zeros. Every “bit,” the smallest unit of data, has to be either a zero or a one. But a quantum bit or “qubit” can be a zero and a one at the same time, and do two computations at once. Add more qubits, and the computing power grows exponentially. Ten qubits can do 1,000 calculations at once; 30 can do a billion. This will allow quantum computers of the future to solve problems thousands of times faster than the fastest supercomputer — the equivalent of being able to read every book in the Library of Congress at once, instead of one at a time.

Inherent conflict between advancing knowledge and national security

The plot of Quantum Spy thus rests on a conflict besides the one between China and the United States: the one between science and security, between advancing knowledge and protecting national assets built around that knowledge.

It’s an issue that needs sorting out in real life, especially in the United States, where university-based quantum experts often find themselves working with their Chinese and Russian counterparts. A company such as Google doesn’t hesitate to build its new artificial-intelligence research center in China and to equip it with Chinese staff. Throw in the fact that, according to leading experts, getting to Quantum D-Day might take only another five years, and we face a national crisis of existential proportions.

If true, we could be entering a world without secrets, especially national security secrets, and that sounds to me like a recipe for a world without national security.

Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.