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An IBM Research scientist conducts a quantum computing experiment at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Oct. 9, 2014 (Jon Simon, Feature Photo Service for IBM).

Don’t Underestimate the Implications of Quantum Technology

Monday, Oct. 3, 2016

Last month, China successfully launched the world’s first quantum satellite, which is designed to establish “hack-proof” communications between space and the ground. The launch puts China ahead of its rivals in the quest to develop quantum technology, which has major implications for security and defense policy. In an email interview, Taylor Owen, an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age,” and Robert Gorwa, a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute and a researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, discuss quantum technology.

WPR: What advantages does quantum technology offer satellites and computing, and to what extent does the technology still need to be developed before its benefits can be fully realized?

Taylor Owen and Robert Gorwa: First, it is important to state from the onset that beyond both relying on quantum mechanical phenomena, there are few similarities between a quantum computer and a quantum satellite project. However, although they’re totally different technologies, if viewed in a strategic context, they are similar in that the effective implementation of either could foment a significant potential advantage in cyberspace. Quantum computing could potentially be used in an offensive capability, by massively increasing computational power, or by breaking certain types of encryption. Quantum satellites, and other quantum communications projects, could provide a defensive mechanism through alternative encryption methods that make communications more secure against interception.

While all of these technologies will still require extensive development, it seems clear that we’re reaching the highest levels yet of investment and interest in their potential. Although some observers may remain understandably skeptical, given the degree of distance between the minutiae of quantum theory and the real-world implications of these technologies, it is important to begin thinking critically about quantum research. Not least because there are a host of political implications that may emerge in the early stages of this work, such as increased ties between Silicon Valley and national governments, to cite just one example.

WPR: What existing technologies will quantum technology impact, make obsolete, undermine, negate the advantage of, or make vulnerable?

Owen and Gorwa: In an article in Foreign Affairs, Quantum Leap, we outlined broadly some of the different quantum technologies that are currently under development, each of which has the potential to shift our technological landscape in numerous ways depending on its successful, or unsuccessful, implementation.

For example, there has been wide discussion of possible doomsday scenarios in which quantum computing could “break” all encryption. However, it’s often ignored that only public-key encryption, such as the RSA protocol commonly used to protect our online activities, would theoretically be vulnerable, while private-key encryption—such as Suite A, used to secure high-level government communications in the United States—would remain secure. This doesn’t bode well for the already dismal ability of the average individual to resist surveillance or hacking by government agencies, and could potentially undermine the commonly used consumer encryption tools that people use around the world to keep their communications private, such as WhatsApp and other apps that rely on public-key cryptosystems.

Fault-tolerant quantum computing would also entail a transformation in computing capacity that has the potential to lead to greater automation and dramatic advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

WPR: What countries are developing quantum technology capabilities, how far along is their development of the technology, and how might it impact the balance of power among them?

Owen and Gorwa: While numerous states and corporations are pursuing quantum-related projects, it is difficult to ignore the research currently being undertaken in the U.S. and in China. As a prominent U.S. rival in the cyber domain, it is natural that China strives for greater security for its own vital communications networks, while the U.S. likewise strives for constant increases in computing power and capability. The quantum element provides a bit of a curveball, however; regardless of how far-fetched such technologies may seem today, they could introduce a sizable measure of uncertainty into the system.

Quantum technologies, whether they be for computing, communication or for a secure global positioning system, present such a potential leap in capability that we must begin thinking about their potential implications, and the resulting shifts in power that could result from their successful development. It is highly unlikely that access to these technologies will be equally shared among and between nations and citizens, so the implications of a quantum arms race become fundamentally a question of political economy and of power-balancing between new structures of individuals and groups. Only time will tell, but based on the current constellation of interests driving these large-scale research agendas, it is unlikely that the individual will come out in front of the governments and corporations currently developing quantum technologies.

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