Eshanthi Ranasinghe
Principal, Exploration and Future Sensing

The Quantum Race

March 12, 2019
By Erica Orange & Jared Weiner, The Future Hunters, and Eshanthi Ranasinghe, Exploration & Future Sensing, Omidyar Network

There have been many advancements in the pursuit of quantum computing, which at its most basic level integrates computer science and the principles of quantum mechanics (e.g., superposition, entanglement, interference). Large-scale quantum computers could theoretically solve many societal, governmental, and business challenges much more quickly than our best current technology. 

Quantum computers can crunch big data problems that involve finding optimum solutions from vast numbers of options and solve computational problems currently out of reach. But what is quantum computing, what can it do, and why are so many countries racing for “quantum supremacy,” especially given … working quantum computers don’t actually exist yet.

What is Quantum Computing? 

Quantum computers harness the speed and behavior of atoms, which function radically differently than silicon computer chips, to perform seemingly impossible calculations. They are powered by qubits, the subatomic workhorses and building blocks of quantum computing. There are a few key differences between a classical computer and a quantum computer. A classic computer uses bits that are either in a 0 or 1 state. But quantum bits, or qubits, can also be both 1 and 0 at the same time. The quantum circuits that use these qubits to transfer information or carry out a calculation are called quantum logic gates; just as a classic circuit controls the flow of electricity within a computer’s circuitry, these gates steer the individual qubits via photons (quantum light particles). This means qubits can achieve an exponentially higher information density than classical computers. Quantum computing offers the potential for computers to operate much faster, using much less power. Some theorists believe that quantum computing will eventually be so powerful that many current forms of encryption will become obsolete.

Quantum Geopolitics 

Some speculate that quantum capability could be used to define future global economic hegemony. China is surging ahead with quantum satellite technology, as it is in AI and robotics, that can send entangled photons from space to stations back on Earth. It is developing a large ground-based network that uses quantum communication to protect messages, a first step towards worldwide secure quantum communications. It enabled the first intercontinental video call that was completely “unhackable,” with surveillance or eavesdropping immediately detected due to the effect that measurement would have on the quantum particles. Governments may soon race to test out quantum theory in orbit, and eventually build a “quantum internet,” which will give rise to new kinds of coding and allow for faster-than-light communication — possibilities that have powerful appeal for government agencies and the private sector alike.

Currently, the Chinese government is working on a $10 billion national lab for quantum research set to open in 2020, and e-commerce giant Alibaba is building a lab of its own. Europe, too, is entering the race. QuTech is working on a quantum mechanics system with the aim of creating a secure communications network between four different cities in the Netherlands by the end of 2020. In 2016, the EU invested $1.2 billion in quantum computing. In December, the US Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which allocates $1.275 billion to quantum research from 2019 to 2023.

Quantum supremacy could also have meaningful implications for private sector actors. At a minimum, a cloud computing company with quantum computers could outperform its conventional rivals in power, speed, and security. At a maximum, companies controlling the “quantum internet” could make an unsurveillable network for those who can afford it, while the rest of the world is relegated to a slower mode of communications where nothing is guaranteed to be private.

Implications and Applications: What is Quantum For? 

Quantum computers have the potential to propel breakthroughs in medicine, finance, and defense capabilities, especially in areas where current computation is considered slow or insecure. They also have the potential to optimize new drug therapies, models for climate change, and designs for new machines. They can achieve faster delivery of products, lower costs for manufactured goods and more efficient transportation. The speed of quantum, combined with AI and machine learning, is a fascinating proposition. Lockheed Martin plans to use its D-Wave quantum computer to test autopilot software that is currently too complex for classical computers. Google is using a quantum computer to design software that can distinguish cars from landmarks.

The most immediately evident and popular applications, however, are in national security. Quantum computers have the potential to disrupt current security protocols that protect global financial markets, render many of today’s sophisticated encryption systems inoperable, and upend secret government intelligence. International competition is of grave concern because one of these machines could in theory crack the encryption that protects sensitive information inside governments and businesses around the world. Quantum communications and cryptography would also offer a distinct tactical advantage to any actor that employs them on the battlefield.

Using quantum communications for the purposes of transmitting classified data is appealing to military planners across the world, as they are impossible to tap clandestinely thanks to the fundamental properties of matter . This poses an opportunity for a veritable “quantum leap” forward in military communication. China has invested disproportionately in quantum cryptography, and many researchers believe they lead the world in this sector. The EU has taken a leadership position in quantum communications, more generally, and the US has focused its efforts on quantum computers.

Quantum Hype? 

While quantum computers offer breakthroughs in computing performance, the applications of this technology do not presently differ significantly from those today, and at best, quantum computing is in beta stage. Communications have been demonstrated in a lab environment, but it remains to be seen if they’d be equally viable “in the wild.” Researchers aren’t even sure that large-scale quantum computing is possible yet. It’s been estimated that the world’s first commercial quantum computer could come as soon as 2022, but that may be more hype than reality. Others estimate that the full impact of quantum computing is a decade — or several — away.

Lack of talent adds a significant restriction on the pace of development. Fewer than a thousand people in the world are estimated to be doing leading research in the field. Private and public entities will have trouble attracting the talent needed to build quantum technology.

Questions and Takeaways

While the exact timeline for quantum computing is largely unknown, it still raises important questions. What is the real potential of quantum — will it simply speed up existing technology, or will it lead to new innovation and applications? Will quantum power be decentralized and available to everyone? Or will it be hoarded and traded by global tech companies and wealthy governments? As quantum computers become viable, governments may need to prepare for the potential cybersecurity consequences. 

Will the current geopolitical landscape of increasing nationalistic policies and reduced cross-border collaboration mean that quantum becomes the next geopolitical “battleground”? Will countries split into factions and choose their “quantum alliance”? What about security implications for individuals? Quantum computing power in the hands of hackers makes possible all sorts of scams that don’t even exist yet. What effect would this have on identity theft schemes? Could cybercriminals begin selling quantum encryption-busting services on the dark web? Some believe the quantum computing apocalypse is imminent. With all new and powerful technology, a looming question remains — will quantum computing be used as a tool of creation, destruction, or both, and who will decide?


This is Trend #3 of 5 in Omidyar Network’s Exploration and Future Sensing 2019 Trends to Watch. View the full series as it publishes here.

Consider Explorations an open space for discussion. We welcome new perspectives — especially those rarely heard, contradictory, relevant, and tangential — and most of all, conversation and partnership to build the future we want, one that includes and empowers us all. To connect and follow new insights we generate, please reach us at [email protected].

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