What’s Next For Quantum In 2021


Quantum technology is going to revolutionize the future. Whatever else one might say about the Trump administration, one of its major achievements was revolutionizing how the US addressed this potentially disruptive technology—including its possible threat to the world’s encryption systems—especially at the federal level.

President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative passed by Congress, increasing funding for quantum research by $1.25 billion. The administration also established the National Quantum Coordination Office at the Office of Science and Technology Policy; prompted the Department of Energy to establish a series of Quantum Information Science Research Centers at its outstanding national labs; and created the Quantum Economic Development Consortium to encourage commercialization of quantum technology and components. Meanwhile, Congress injected requirements for the Pentagon to embrace the need for quantum technology in successive National Defense Authorization Acts; while the National Institute for Standards and Technology continues to take big strides toward standardizing post-quantum cryptography (PQC) solutions to future quantum computer attacks. The National Security Agency still likes to keep its work on quantum computers under wraps, but their scientists and cryptographers are clearly thinking about the quantum threat, and how to promote the need for PQC to defend America’s government and infrastructure.    

Those of us at the Quantum Alliance Initiative at the Hudson Institute have done our bit, too. We held the very first conference on quantum technology in Washington D.C. in 2017; the next year we issued our first report on the quantum computer threat.  The next two years were devoted to developing technical standards for quantum cryptography, including Quantum Key Distribution and Quantum Random Number Generators, for submission to the International Telecommunications Union. Since then we’ve been alerting the government and private institutions to the frightening results of our econometric studies on the possible impact of a future computer attack on our financial infrastructure and the energy grid.

But much more remains to be done.

First, there has to be a considerable increase in the amount of funding for quantum technology, especially on the security side. It’s always easy to say, “Spend more,” but given that the Chinese government is still outspending ours roughly 10 to 1 on the technology that will change the 21st century; it’s urgent we at least catch up.  

Second, we need to invest in multiple paths for increasing our leadership in quantum computing.  Superconductivity has been the most fruitful approach so far; it’s the path being pursued by the big companies like IBM
, Google
, and Microsoft
. But ion trap and photonic quantum computers, also offer powerful possibilities for the future—not just for the weaponized code-breaking dimension of quantum, but also for breakthroughs in medicine, chemistry, and understanding the universe.

Third, we can work harder on recruiting our allies for quantum partners. Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Israel: all have pieces to offer to make sense of the total quantum puzzle. Let’s see a coordinated quantum cross-alliance summit that breathes new life into our existing strategic partners via quantum, but also offers opportunities for newer allies to make a difference (I’m thinking particularly of India).

Fourth, it’s time to think about not just how much we spend on quantum but how we spend it, and why. What are the rules going to be for use and misuse of this potentially world-changing technology? How we make sure that doesn’t turn the cyber divide into a deeper and more permanent quantum divide, and how do we ensure that the enormous benefits from the technology are as broadly spread as possible?

Cambridge Quantum Computing’s founder and CEO Ilyas Khan had some provocative thoughts on this subject in a brand-new essay at Scientific American entitled, “Will Quantum Computers Truly Serve Humanity?”

He writes:

“We are now on the threshold of a new computer technology era more powerful than anything that preceded it: the age of quantum computing. However, this time we have a chance to stop and think carefully about the ethical use of a transformative technology today while we can still shape the future.”

Khan is right. This is the moment to address these issues on an international basis: how this emerging technology—potentially the most disruptive since the advent of nuclear weapons—can benefit the world instead of becoming the runaway sorcerer’s apprentice in a new dangerous era of great power competition and international anarchy. 

For the U.S., it’s also time to take seriously the ethics of not moving to protect our future networks and data, including 5G, from the potential of a quantum computer assault. Would-be quantum superpowers like China and Russia need to understand that weaponizing this technology will have consequences, not just in the court of world opinion but in real time—just as we can all work together to ensure that the Quantum Age means a brighter future for all of us.


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