Surprise: One of the largest revolutions that will remake our planet in the near future is a technology you may not have heard of.And if you have heard of it, chances are you did not remotely understand how it works or the enormity of its significance.
The revolution is quantum computing.
In layman’s terms, computer scientists and other scientists are taking quantum mechanics, which the superhero Avengers famously used in the movie End Game to travel through time, in order to create a super computer that will make today’s fastest computers look like a typewriter.
Except that quantum computing is real and just around the corner.
The implications could be no less than to remake who are the world’s military, economic and technological powers and redefine industries as diverse as communications, health, finance and energy. And there is a race between the US and China, with others like Russia, the EU, Canada and more recently Israel, all hoping to achieve dominance (or in Israel’s case, at least a respectable place at the table) – much like the space race.
So who will win this race and dominate the coming decades? The Magazine has discussed the issue with a wide range of US and Israeli government and business-sector officials.
BOB BLAKLEY is an operating partner at the leading global venture group, Team8. He also recently served as a member of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Quantum Computing. He recounted that when he checked the numbers a year ago, “on government funding for quantum technology, China was still No. 1 – excluding [classified government] black budgets.”
“Europe, Australia and the US all have some pretty robust enterprises pursuing quantum sensing, communications and the construction of quantum computers. There is also Google, Microsoft and others,” he said.
Incidentally, in October 2019, Google declared that it had achieved “quantum supremacy.” But Blakley explained that the quantum computer they achieved was an intermediate stage, still a good deal short of the game-changer stage. Amazon, IBM, Honeywell, IonQ, Cambridge Quantum Computing, Rigetti and others are also major players in the quantum race.
The Magazine also discussed these issues with former IDF Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Ben Israel, who recently co-headed a government commission to devise a long-term country strategy for quantum technology and has headed other key agencies. Ben Israel confirms that China initially invested in the quantum technology race earlier and more seriously than the US. Still, Ben Israel is not overly worried.
“When it comes to China and Russia, could they get to the technology much before the US? From the 21st century, we see authoritarians can focus all of their efforts in one direction,” he said.
He remarked that from the 1950s to the 1970s, Russia led the world in space until “the US said, ‘This is hurting our image.’ They wanted to close the gap. [US president John F.] Kennedy said within 10 years they would catch up to them.”
Since then, “almost all of the technology which we cannot live without has been made in the West. This is because that is where people have freedom of thought and creativity.... The culture in the West has a major advantage over the competition,” said Ben Israel.
The Magazine also spoke to founder and president of industry analyst firm Inside Quantum Technology Lawrence Gasman, who has written four books and tracked new technologies for 35 years.
Regarding who is winning the race, Gasman said, “I question that ‘ahead’ is a very meaningful term in this context. Nobody really knows how much money has gone into Chinese quantum computers” or the US effort “since the intelligence community... almost certainly funds activity overtly and covertly.
“That said, we don’t think that the Chinese have many quantum computers deployed,” and it was unclear if they could perform, he said.
Responding to experts who told the Magazine that the US has regained the lead in quantum computing, but that China remains the leader in quantum communications, Gasman said, “I am far from sure that China is ahead on quantum communications. What you are referring to probably is the long-haul quantum nets [new quantum online networks] that the Chinese have built, but these are quickly replicating in the US and Europe and aren’t that hard to build.”
He added, “Most of the innovations in quantum communications seem to be in the US and Europe,” but that “China has bigger/longer quantum nets than the West so far, but the Chinese are to be feared in this area over the long term. Technologists are typically very naive about the Chinese threat.”
HOW DOES Israel fit into this much bigger game of the world’s greatest powers?
Ben Israel said, “Israel is very strong in quantum mechanics. Some of the biggest developments have come from Israeli researchers. [Israeli physicist specializing in quantum physics] Yakir Aharonov is in his 80s,” noting that US president Barack Obama gave him a medal in 2010.
“In the 1950s, Israelis were already working on quantum mechanics,” and now have two generations of students, he noted.
Despite Israel’s theoretical strength, its investment and expertise is uneven in some practical areas. To date, it has been mostly working on applications and software to hop on the bandwagon of quantum computers from the US and elsewhere, hooking up to them via the cloud. It only very recently started investing in aspects of its own quantum computing projects.
Ben Israel observed, “We need to invest more in quantum in the areas of academics, industry and technology – and in the future in quantum computers” themselves.
But there is a serious roadblock. A true realist, Ben Israel laid out that “there is no budget. Since April 2019, because of the election and the coronavirus,” most of the approved NIS 1.4 billion is stuck. Without a new budget, “the Finance Ministry cannot invest in new things,” he said, despite noting that the budget for quantum issues was part of a “national consensus... The plan [for quantum issues] exists, we just need to pass the budget law. But no one is working on the budget” right now because of political disagreements between the governing coalition’s political parties.
Defense Ministry defense research and development quantum research director Tal David told the Magazine that NIS 1.25 billion was approved this summer and that a huge volume of quantum technology projects are moving forward despite the government budget standoff.
Gasman said that some countries are investing in quantum technology as a national long-term priority, even if the economics do not add up.
“So the Israeli government may decide it is a national priority too,” he added. “Within the context of politics, you could imagine one reason would be as a prestige project – to show off Israel or perhaps in collaboration with its new pals in the Gulf.”
One Israeli leader in developing software applications for quantum computing to carry industries forward in the private sector is Classiq, the first Israeli start-up in the field of quantum computing software. Classiq empowers “quantum software developers” and enables “the development of world-changing quantum algorithms and applications.”
The Magazine spoke with Classiq co-founders Nir Minerbi (also CEO and former IDF Talpiot, 8200 and Rafael alumnus); Dr. Yehuda Naveh (also CTO and top academic); and Amir Naveh (also vice president of R&D as well as former IDF Talpiot and Defense Ministry alumnus). Naveh noted that a major focus of the firm was “portfolio optimization and options pricing. You can use a quantum computer to analyze many different paths of assets’ behavior and simulate from that the best pricing for the options.”
Explaining how their technology works, Naveh said that Classiq is given financial parameters by clients and then “maps them into a model that is then solved with automation to create a concrete quantum circuit” which provides the desired financial guidance. He told the Magazine that the automotive industry would be another area that would transform due to quantum technology.
“Every major car manufacturer, or most, already have quantum computing integrated into their business model at some level... quantum computing will improve gasoline efficiency, reduce polluting processes” and would use material science simulations to develop better and lighter cars.
Minerbi said, “The whole cybersecurity community has a quantum PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] because one of the infamous applications is breaking the RSA,” which can be done based on Peter Shore’s algorithm discovered in 1994.
RSA encryption refers to a public-key cryptosystem that is widely used for secure data transmission, especially via the unsecured Internet, and there are prophecies that eventually quantum computing will render it and the many Internet functions protected by it, obsolete.
Sounds like a big deal, but Minerbi asserted, “Quantum is much more than that. It can disrupt huge industries and in cyber,” it can revolutionize defense by allowing a far more systematic evaluation and plugging of weak points simultaneously, as well as more immediately discovering any malware once in a system and exactly what that malware is doing.
Absent quantum computing, some defensive or post-attack forensic evaluations are simply impossible to perform because of the limited speed of classical computers as compared to the number of areas or operations that must be checked, he said.
Returning to the Armageddon scenarios of China or another adversary of the US using quantum computing to hack the New York Stock Exchange, huge banks and US defense agencies, a huge amount of which are based on RSA encryption, Blakley played down the near-term threat somewhat.
But addressing hacking concerns from quantum attacks and malware, Blakley said, “Number one, there is no quantum malware today. There isn’t a quantum computer that can execute quantum malware today.” In addition, “It is unclear [why you] would get a quantum computer to break into a classical computer. Regular computers can do this.”
WHAT THREATS is Blakley referring to when he uses the phrase “quantum apocalypse?”
He responded, “One of the important things would [relate to] websites certifying and implementing SSL [Secure Sockets Layer, an encryption-based Internet security protocol] encryption on the servers of all of the companies and banks. This would be able to be forged. You would be able to create a website certificate which said that I was the bank of X.”
This would mean, “I would be able to put up the website. It looks legitimate and exactly like the bank’s website. I could use that to collect peoples’ passwords for their bank accounts, then go into the real websites and log into customer accounts.”
Part of what is scary would be the untraceability afterward, since “in order to crack these companies’ certifications, you don’t need to do anything a company can see... There would be no data that would allow you to do a forensics analysis on data accessible to the bank.”
To be ready for all of this, Blakley gives a lecture with a seven-point plan of quantum readiness.
Pressed that it will be hard for companies to get ready for something that has not hit them yet and they do not yet fully understand, he said, “Sure, we did all of that for the Y2K problem over the course of a decade and we actually solved the problem.
Obviously, we can do this. We know pretty exactly when the new quantum algorithm will be available. The National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] process for selecting those algorithms is already in round three... at some point in 2023-2024 we will have the algorithms.”
These algorithms will provide “post quantum-encryption” or a new revolution in encryption that quantum computers cannot break.
“A lot of the work that needs to be done is concentrated on a few businesses with really robust capabilities... It matters a lot what Google, Amazon, Microsoft do here, because a lot of applications run there. Internet infrastructure runs in their cloud environment. Also, Verizon, ATT and others: a lot of cryptography is built into their devices.”
“There will be some things that don’t get fixed so well. If a couple of dozen companies worldwide, including banks, do the right thing and take this seriously, then a major part of the problem will be under control,” Blakley added optimistically.
But if post-quantum encryption is farther along than quantum computing, why all the fuss? Isn’t society going to be just fine if the cure beats the disease? Blakley explained the problem thus: lag-time.
Post-quantum encryption in some respects already exists and should beat full-powered quantum computing by years. But, Blakley warned, “It could be a decade or more [before post-quantum encryption is fully adopted]. For example, take software from Microsoft. We know how long it takes to get globally deployed and to get rid of all of the old stuff. The Internet is a big place,” noting there will be “decommissioned equipment that is difficult [to update] or just isn’t going to happen.”
One example of a major likely worldwide vulnerability would be the “millions of Wi-Fi routers that people will never update. We will just need to wait until they throw it in the garbage.”
SOME OF the military implications for the US, Israel and the West could be far more serious than a seemingly innocuous wireless router. An August 2018 US Army report and a 2019 US Defense Department report both expressed concern about the military implications of ongoing Chinese technological advances.
The army said, “A global race has ensued to exploit and operationalize quantum technologies for the use of military effects. The race to conquer the quantum domain is among the most fiercely competitive in today’s world of technology.”
Quantum computing will not merely advance science. It will eventually alter and overturn the playing field of war-fighting. If China or another country gains a substantial military quantum advantage over the US or Israel, it could change the balance of who has a qualitative military advantage.
China has created a record-breaking communications link using entangled particles between satellites and an earth station. This could eventually allow China to transition its military telecommunications to the quantum networks, making it difficult for the US to maintain its present level of surveillance.
Chinese company Electronic Technology Group Corporation claims it has developed quantum radar. If fully developed, quantum radar could threaten the US lead in stealth technology. That could mean increased vulnerability of US stealth aircraft such as the B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor, and the US and Israel’s prized “untrackable” F-35.
There are similar concerns that China could leap forward in its detection of nuclear-powered attack submarines after the Chinese National Academy of Science announced the development of a quantum submarine detector based on an array of sensors known as SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device).
Each of these issues could be uniquely problematic for Israel, which leans on its qualitative military edge to prevent imminent invasion from surrounding hostile neighbors.
Without addressing specifics, Defense Ministry official David said, “It is clear also why it [quantum technology] is relevant in the military arena” and why it would be important “to get capabilities the enemy doesn’t have.”
Referring to the military concerns, Ben Israel recounted an incident from about a decade ago when scholar Yakir Aharonov warned him about a potential little-known new Chinese technology that could find stealth aircraft.
More than 10 years have passed and the new threat did not pan out, which Ben Israel said proved that even if it could not be ignored, he was optimistic that democratic countries would remain ahead in the long term in the relevant major technological areas.
“I do think the Chinese are much more of a threat to the US than the Russians ever were,” Gasman cautioned. “I suppose there would be an ongoing effort to protect US assets with ever-better post-quantum computer technology and quantum key distribution, but nothing is really invulnerable.” (Quantum key distribution is a secure communication method using cryptographic protocol involving components of quantum mechanics.)
Moreover, asked about the possibility of Iran or terrorist groups transferring or using quantum technology via the cloud, he said, “If one of them had an academic account, they could do it for free. Of course, it will be a few years before they can do something terrible with this access.”
“Quantum computing will revolutionize all of the digital world, and other security issues,” Classiq’s Naveh said. “I think of national security issues and tech issues and projects as just one other class of a hard problem to solve. Object detection can help you optimize the graphic and also in intelligence and combating a specific terror threat.”
In other words, though the US must follow competition from competitors, on the positive side, there could be major benefits for Israel in collecting intelligence and locating terrorist threats.
HOW WILL the commercial sector be affected? As mentioned regarding the company Classiq, revolutions of quantum technology will be at least as significant, if not more, than the security dimensions.
Blakley said, “In quantum chemistry and the material sciences, we could see the discovery of new drugs, new coatings for airplanes” (utilizing new kinds of approaches to paint and rustproofing).
“In financial applications, there will be portfolio optimization,” which will shift the investment world to new paradigms.
In addition, Blakley said that applications of machine learning could include an energy revolution. “The majority of fertilizer in the world is nitrogen fertilizer. We know how to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer on a vast scale... but this is really energy intensive. Two percent of all generated energy in the world is used to produce nitrogen fertilizer,” he said.
“But plants do this for almost zero energy. They are very efficient. The hope is that quantum simulations of chemical processes can teach us how to greatly reduce the energy” needed to make nitrogen fertilizer.
The implications of this, he remarked, could be slowing climate change, improving food production “so we don’t have famines and food shortages for reasons related to the inability to fertilize crops.”
Gasman predicted, “Commercially, I see quantum technology leading to an entirely new cycle of highly secure networks. People are already talking about the quantum Internet replacing the original Internet.”
Ben Israel discussed a health sector revolution where quantum technology would combine the Internet of Things to enable the implementation of tiny mechanical devices, far beyond anything that exists now, inside people’s bodies to help regulate and monitor functions.
Whether it is dissecting the old Internet and rebuilding a new one or paradigm shifts in military, economic, health, energy and other industries – it seems few areas of life will be left untouched by the coming quantum-computing tidal wave.