Quantum computing: A national security primer


Quantum computing is a rapidly advancing field of computer science that harnesses the mind-bending dynamics of quantum physics—the behavior of the universe’s smallest particles—to produce computers with vast new capabilities.1 The physics behind quantum computing are immensely complex, allowing quantum computers to store and interpret data in dynamic “qubits” rather than the “bits” of conventional computers. Whereas bits are simple binary ones or zeros that—when strung together millions at a time—direct a computer’s processes, qubits are much more versatile and can represent a broad range of changing states, including negative values. The upshot of this bit overhaul is processing power that is many orders of magnitude greater than anything possible with conventional computers.

Given that quantum computing makes use of particles and relationships at the subatomic level, developing and operating quantum computers is a delicate art—not least because many quantum computers require operating temperatures of approximately 15 millikelvins, which is colder than interstellar space. Despite the considerable challenges of manipulating the universe’s smallest particles for advanced information processing, progress toward more-advanced quantum computers is accelerating. In October 2019, for instance, Google claimed to have conducted a calculation on a quantum computer in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most advanced conventional supercomputer at the time about 10,000 years—a milestone in quantum computer development.2

Even with these advancements, though, quantum computing remains in early stages of development. While initial successes intimate a field on the cusp of revolutionary achievements, the real-world applications and impact of quantum technologies are still largely unrealized. That said, national governments around the world are recognizing quantum technologies’ extraordinary potential for economic growth and national security interests, initiating a global competition for further quantum development. This report briefly examines that race’s key elements from a national security lens, explaining quantum computing’s significance for national security, the nature of the quantum race, the state of key competitors, and policy recommendations for a stronger American approach to the field.

Read the full report.

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