Quantum innovation needs this region’s experts

For quantum computing to truly take off in a number of already-established industries, it needs some strong experts in its corner. Thankfully, the D.C. region already holds many of the experts needed. To talk about how industries around the region are working towards quantum computing, we spoke with Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert in culture and society.

ABERMAN: Well, certainly this is an area I’ve delved into a lot recently: why are people so concerned about quantum computing, from the standpoint of national security?

HERMAN: Well, quantum computing is an emerging technology. We have some companies and agencies that already have rudimentary quantum computers at work. What has focused everyone’s attention on this is the future potentialities, within the next decade, possibly even sooner. What you have to understand is that a quantum computer moves exponentially faster to solving problems than today’s classical computer, even faster than supercomputers. What you’re able to do, because a classical computer, right, breaks all data down into zero and ones, and then sorts through them on a linear sequence.

Even supercomputers have to do everything in line, one after another. They do at an amazingly fast speed, but it’s still a linear process. The quantum computer, because you’re using quantum physics, which allows a bit of information to be both one and zero at the same time, what they call superposition, allows you to eliminate lots of steps in between. You don’t have to do it in a linear process, you can solve problems all it wants.

The way I put it is like, instead of reading all of the books in the Library of Congress one after another, you could read them all at once. Now, what this means is, first of all, in terms of the huge complicated calculations you’ll be able to do in the blink of an eye, we’re talking about huge advances in our ability to solve major problems in genetics, and medicine, in understanding climate change. The applications are enormous, but it also means, however, and this gets to your point about why people are concerned about this, is it will be able to factorize the huge prime and subprime numbers on which all of our public encryption systems are based.

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So basically, what you’ve got is the code breaker computer of all time. And what’s going to have to happen, now, is that we’re going to have to, number one, make sure that the United States, and our government, and our companies, have the lead in securing that incredibly important breakthrough, in developing a quantum computer that has this kind of tremendous potential, both disruptive, but also in terms of the benefits. But, we also have to find ways to protect ourselves if some other guy, particularly China, who’s working very hard on this, get to that quantum computer first or even second.

ABERMAN: Arthur, it strikes me that this reminds me of conversations I have around artificial intelligence, or other advancing technology areas, which have many positive economic benefits, but also enormous national security challenges. You know, you touched on this, and I think this is important, I want devote some good time to this. This is going to change the computer industry, this is going to change information. It’s already happening. This must be creating an enormous economic opportunity for companies around the world, and also locally. What do you see?

HERMAN: Well, what I see here is, first of all, I see two areas in which you can begin to see that there are economic, as well as national security concerns and opportunities. One is quantum computing itself. Now, we have our major IT giants, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Google, all working furiously in this area to develop the quantum computer that has the capacity, now, to really do things that classical computers, even supercomputers, can’t do. They’re working hard on that.

You’ve got mid-sized companies like Rigetti Computing. Chad Rigetti, who has really carved out a very important niche for himself in this area. You’ve got companies that are involved in developing quantum hardware, that quantum computers expand, are going to need component parts. We special materials, and special ways of handling those in order to work within the confines of quantum physics, and the way it underpins this type of technology.

Then, on the other side, you’ve got the quantum cryptography, and post-quantum cryptography. What we’re talking about there is, number one, writing algorithms that are large enough, and complicated enough, that even a quantum computer, even a quantum computer that’s geared to breaking down public encryption systems, is still going have trouble, and still be stymied with that. And then, you’ve also got quantum technology itself, which can be used to encrypt, and to protect data and networks, in ways that will be, essentially unhackable.

I mean, you’re talking about using truly random numbers, as a means by which to connect people to each other, so the messages and data flowing between them are like what cryptographers call a one-time pad. There’s no way to crack into that. And once you do, both sides will know, because the connection will be broken. So, think about it: unhackable networks and data protecting against a future quantum computer assault.

These are openings in the area of cybersecurity companies, cybersecurity technology, in which, hey, go hire a couple people who understand something about quantum technology, and you could really have an important important base by which to start to draw the attention of our own government agencies, but also of companies and financial institutions, as well as the IT giants themselves. They’re going to need help in this area.

ABERMAN: So, the message I’m taking away for our listeners, and the folks listening, is that this may be an opportunity to develop some truly great companies.

HERMAN: I think so, and I think somewhere out there, there is a Steve jobs of quantum. Somewhere out there, there’s a Bill Gates in the quantum area, and someone who emerges that way, and says, I can really capture this market, with this new emerging technology, and draw the engineers and the scientists, but also, too, the funding sources that I need to show how these applications can work to protect our national security, advance our economic growth, and also advance the science. This is going to be a big deal.

ABERMAN: Well Arthur, I really appreciate you coming in and taking the time, Folks, if you want to understand more about how innovation and technology are affecting society in different ways, do follow Arthur Herman and his work, and others’ work at the Hudson Institute.

HERMAN: And, can I also mention: my column at forbes.com, in which I cover quantum, artificial intelligence, and other high tech systems, and how they’re going to affect national security.

ABERMAN: Now you mention it, now I’ll go read it. Thanks for joining us.

HERMAN: Thanks.