Quantum computing: What agencies need to know

Most people have heard of supercomputing. Most people have heard of quantum computing. While it might sound natural to assume that quantum computing is simply a...

Most people have heard of supercomputing. Most people have heard of quantum computing. While it might sound natural to assume that quantum computing is simply an evolution of supercomputing, they’re fundamentally different in key ways.

Just as a space shuttle is not the next evolution of a bicycle, quantum computing is not the next evolution of the supercomputer. It’s a disruptive technology that aims to surpass the capabilities of the most powerful supercomputers and solve problems that are considered too complicated for classical computers. This emergence of quantum as a compute resource for solving specific computing challenges is perhaps the most significant facet of quantum for federal agencies to understand.

A brief overview

In classical computing, the fundamental object of information is the bit, which can have a value of either 0 or 1. It’s the combination of bits that enable the storage of values and computers to perform operations. For example, two bits will give you four possible values (00, 01, 10, 11) with only one value being stored at a given time. Quantum computers primarily use two properties of quantum mechanics to make their calculations. The first is superposition where a quantum bit (qubit) can be in two states at the same time. Because a qubit can be in a superposition of 0 and 1, every operation is done on both values at the same time. Following the previous example, one qubit can take the value of two bits. Two qubits can take the possible values of two bits (00, 01, 10, 11) simultaneously.

Quantum computers also use the entanglement property, where particles or qubits are connected and can act on one another even when they are physically apart. For example, polarized light that has two entangled photons that have horizontal and vertical polarization. A change in one photon will instantly change the other. Entanglement is a significant difference from classical computing and enables quantum computers to perform complex computations more efficiently. In that vein, quantum computers are exponentially faster than classical computers and can support more advanced and complex compute applications such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Quantum computing is about efficiency of solutions derived by quantum circuit configuration, more than just speed, because it’s really about the number of iterations taken to solve a complex problem than brute compute power alone. Some problems are not solvable for classical computing, such as factoring large integers into prime numbers. In 2019, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA and Google demonstrated the ability to calculate what would take even the largest and most advanced supercomputers thousands of years. Their quantum computer did it in 200 seconds and with just 53 qubits. The quantum computing industry continues to make advances in the accessibility and development of quantum computers. In November 2021, IBM unveiled their 127-Qubit Quantum Processor, and customers are now able to access a variety of quantum computing hardware systems through cloud services such Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.

Putting quantum to work

Consider health care. It’s evident that cancer isn’t one disease but many, and it manifests differently in different people. Quantum computers could allow scientists to create new treatments unique to specific groups of people quickly – millions of individual cures and millions of individuals cured. Think about genetic conditions where humans have roughly 22,000 genes. The ability to test gene therapies or screen for genetic diseases on this — for a quantum computer — relatively small set of variables is powerful. Think about vaccine development, clinical trials, and more.

There are also applications for quantum computers in securing communications. Quantum computers are well suited for encrypting communications and detecting if they’ve been hacked. For governments, that can mean scrambling messages between intelligence agencies, militaries or cables between diplomats to make them exponentially more difficult to crack.

For federal agencies, quantum computing can play an essential role in advancing their missions — whatever their nature — as well as in cybersecurity, particularly in next-generation cryptography. Agencies can leverage quantum computing to help test new encryption algorithms that are quantum-resistant, which is essential to get in front of a widening array of cybersecurity threats.

Protecting data from quantum computer attacks

There are also risks with this nascent technology. With quantum computers, adversaries and traditional hackers won’t need to penetrate networks to access sensitive information. Using a method called “harvest now, decrypt later,” hackers can intercept encrypted data during transmission and later decrypt the data using existing quantum algorithms. Federal agencies need to prepare for this pending threat and leverage quantum-resistant technologies. The White House recently issued two presidential directives advancing the development of quantum technologies and preparing for the risks posed by quantum computers to cybersecurity.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading an effort that uses a public, competition-like process to select one or more cryptographic algorithms as new standards for the post-quantum era. Once NIST identifies the new standards, federal agencies will need to move swiftly to implement them.

We are just scratching the surface regarding what quantum computing can do to solve the world’s toughest challenges. Federal agencies can leverage the promise and potential of quantum computing and apply it with current technology to advance their missions. Investing in how to utilize the advances in quantum computing now will pay dividends in the future — exponentially larger ones, for sure.

Dr. Jim Matney is GDIT’s vice president and general manager, DISA and Enterprise Services


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