America is Losing the Quantum Race with China | Opinion

You may not have realized, but China has been outpacing America in the race to reach the next frontier of critical national security technology: quantum computing. In October, Chinese scientists unveiled the world's fastest programmable quantum computer, a million times more powerful than Google's most advanced supercomputer. Their technology can accomplish in one millisecond what would take a typical computer some 30 trillion years.

America is finally taking notice. Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed two documents—an executive order and a National Security Memorandum—to boost America's quantum capabilities on offense and defense. That means developing our own quantum computing technology, and protecting our key IT infrastructure from quantum attacks by adversaries. If we're not prepared for the eventuality of a quantum cyberattack that could render useless every password and computing device, from the iPhones in our pockets to GPS in aircraft to the supercomputers that process stock market transactions, the national security consequences will be enormous.

Quantum computing, a form of high-speed calculation at the subatomic level conducted at extraordinarily cold temperatures, will bring computers to speeds barely imaginable today. Atoms, photons and electrons that operate beyond the classical laws of physics and in the realm of "quantum" can be harnessed for extraordinary computing power. Complex problems that once took years to solve could take seconds.

And that means everything we know about cybersecurity—every lock secured by current encryption methods—could get blown wide open.

Think of encryption like a math problem. Using modern 256-bit encryption, you have 78 digits' worth of possible combinations to sort through to get the right code and break the digital lock: 115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,564,039,457,584,007,913,129,639,936 possible combinations, to be exact. Today's hardware and software, using bits, would take millions of years to sort through that many combinations. Quantum bits—or qubits—can be used in parallel to exponentially accelerate a computer's ability to solve algorithms once thought impossible.

Quantum computing chip
A wafer with photonic chips for quantum computing is seen at the technology company Q.ant in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on September 14, 2021. - The company works on chips with customized waveguides for optical data processing, that are "considered the central building block for bringing quantum technologies out of the labs and into everyday products", according to the Q.ant. THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP

It's possible that China's recent quantum advancement claims are exaggerated, but the advent of quantum computing is not a question of "if," but "when." Ransomware attacks routinely make global headlines. Russia is using cyberattacks as weapons of war against Ukraine. But a U.S. adversary unleashing quantum computing into our digital environment would unleash nothing less than a cybersecurity apocalypse, where corporate, government and military secrets are put at risk by technology that could break 256-bit encryption in a matter of hours.

President Biden's recent moves will better coordinate our government's efforts to prevent this nightmare scenario, by bringing federal agencies and critical infrastructure companies together to address quantum threats. It also brings the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee under White House control.

Centralizing the government response is important, but a comprehensive approach will have to look beyond Washington as well. We must engage and incentivize America's higher education system to train more quantum engineers. Beyond our own borders, it will be important to work with like-minded nations like Britain, India, Japan and South Korea to share breakthroughs in quantum technology.

America must also harness the full might and ingenuity of its private sector to remain competitive and avoid a repeat of the cyberattacks that have held some of the country's biggest sectors hostage. Cybersecurity experts and chief information officers can start by encrypting data at rest, tokenizing data and micro-segmenting user and system access controls that allow for fewer "backdoor" entry points. And then there's the old-fashioned method of putting more locks on the door—or in this case, encrypting data several times using different algorithms, making the code-breaking process longer and tougher for even quantum computers.

Quantum technology will revolutionize our future as much as the internet and atomic weapons did. It holds enormous promise for pharmaceutical development and discovery, climate modeling and artificial intelligence. But we are also careening toward a perilous future—the worst-case cybersecurity scenarios can and will play out if America remains ill-prepared. Our vulnerabilities in securing infrastructure, personal, business and classified data are very real, especially so in an era of great-power competition with adversaries like Russia and China, which boast advanced and aggressive cyber capabilities.

From Pearl Harbor to Sputnik to 9/11, the United States has found itself surprised and outmatched before, and yet it found ways to marshal the unwieldy gears of government, the will of the public and the ingenuity of the private sector to meet those challenges—even if belatedly. The coming dawn of the quantum age is no different. We must capitalize on the momentum kicked off by Biden's executive actions. Our choice is a simple one: to await the devastation of the first cyberattack fueled by quantum decryption, or to build the defenses to stop it.

Theresa Payton is the first and only woman to hold the position of White House Chief Information officer. She served under President George W. Bush from 2006-2008, overseeing IT operations for the President and his staff. She is currently Founder & CEO of Fortalice Solutions, a cybersecurity and intelligence firm that's listed in the Global Cybersecurity Top 500, and author of Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.