The US must maintain its quantum advantage

The US must maintain its quantum advantage

View: The US must maintain its quantum advantage

June 21, 2022

By John C. Johnson

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The US’s dependence on networks for secure financial transactions, communications, human-machine interfaces and unbreakable situational awareness on the battlefield has grown significantly over the years to the point where “arms races” are now mislabeled.

Instead, the situation is best described as a “technological search.” Research centers around the world are now under pressure and pushing for the latest technology. In a commercial environment, the first launch brings higher revenue and greater profits. In national security, “gains” equate to securing communications and achieving national security goals.

The US’s dependence on technology has become acute, especially with the simultaneous maneuvering and positioning of those who are willing to undermine international stability. It is now necessary to prevent a slow spiral descent as potential adversaries soar. Exploring sciences that have the potential to shift the paradigm brings a single field of technical knowledge with huge implications across the spectrum of business and defense: quantum technology.

Subsequently, to prevent any technological erosion, President Joe Biden signed on May 4 the “Executive Order to Strengthen the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee,” which reports directly to the White House. This group of independent experts will advise the government and its many agencies on the state of development of quantum technology.

Quantum technology, which is no longer a laboratory experiment, now brings practical applications, but there is irreversible damage if it is controlled by opponents of the global order. Today, encrypted transactions can be kept by others in depositories until quantum calculations are able to decipher what we consider today to be unbreakable code. Intellectual property, classified data and all personal information will be considered “open source” information. The danger is incomprehensible and the very reason for the presidential decree. To fully understand the potential, Americans must be educated in the science of quantum technology.

Those unfamiliar with quantum technology often have the following reactions to mention it: a questioning look, recognition of its distant potential, or a vision of the large cryogenic units needed to slow atomic particles to a stationary state to initialize a value.

Nevertheless, the fourth group works diligently with technology every day to move beyond a binary bit of 0 or 1 to a qubit of 0 and 1. These elite individuals are driving a second quantum revolution. Qubits have become a reality; dozens are now possible.

Cryogenic refrigeration units, which can reach temperatures close to absolute zero, have enabled qubits, but their enormous size makes general applications difficult. Nevertheless, in 1997, Bill Phillips won the Nobel Prize in Physics for proving that atoms are affected by laser light and that they can be cooled to low temperatures – thousands of degrees above absolute zero – and captured by Doppler effects, thus eliminating the need for large cryogenic units.

Subsequently, David Wineland and Serge Haroche won the 2012 Nobel Prize for controlling and measuring quantum particles while maintaining their quantum properties. With more than one laser, the thermal equilibrium of a quantum particle can be established. These successes have given smaller laboratories and universities the opportunity to work with some of the smallest known particles.

One of the basic building blocks of any quantum application is qubit, which is an expression of the superpositional properties of a particle. An atomic particle can “occupy” several states simultaneously. The second is entanglement, where two or more quantum particles share common unified characteristics while they are physically separated. Laser cooling applications allow you to hold and arrange critical qubits in a heat balance grid, but this method comes with astonishing challenges.

Qubit is extremely sensitive to temperature, vibration, noise, electromagnetic waves, crosstalk, and so on, causing significant errors and consequent loss of quantum coherence, making it difficult to characterize and initialize the value. Lack of coherence is one of the serious problems facing scientists and research engineers. Without coherence, extremely little can be achieved in a fleeting quantum moment. But while it may take several years to achieve coherence, the level of quantum coherence we are capable of today is sufficient for a variety of applications.

It is important to know two applications: quantum computing and quantum sensing, which have short-term potential.

In quantum computing, once a particle is kept close to immobility – in a coherent state – its quantum value can be initialized, which is in a state of superposition 0 and 1. Superposition allows parallel activity compared to a series calculation associated with binary. But more factors degrade or consume qubits and need to be considered for quantum calculations. Sufficient qubits must be available to compensate for qubits that fall out of coherence and return to the binary state.

Several companies can fetch qubits in quantities; however, reserve qubits may exceed the number required to calculate the algorithm.

Pre-error correction of noise and other harmful qubit characteristics, which the results of cloud calculations also consume qubits. Neither providing additional qubits nor performing pre-error correction processes are ideal, but the current state of the art can now provide sufficient qubits and fidelity to perform quantum calculations to a limited extent, which is a White House problem.

Operational applications with abbreviated algorithms can be executed before coherence is lost. This approach, called “scalable processing”, runs a traditional high-speed computer in tandem with a quantum device allocated for narrow and abbreviated activity, such as encryption / decryption, and can provide answers to questions that could not be answered before.

Time before decoherence is a limiting factor for the depth of computing power. Progress is being made in extending the cohesion period and subsequent applications. The administration – further emphasized by the recent executive regulation – wants all government agencies, industry and commercial entities to be aware of the dangers and to take steps to prevent the loss of important data.

Today, there is another application, quantum sensing. The sensitivity of a quantum particle to any force interacting with its mass may not be a desirable characteristic in creating long-term coherence, but it brings an application of potential interest: quantum sensing. The extreme sensitivity of qubit makes it an ideal measuring instrument that is potentially much more accurate than current conventional measuring devices.

Quantum sensors can detect slight changes in magnetic and electric fields, acceleration / rotation, and many other applications. Any improvement in inertial navigation – ie reducing dependence on space GPS – is significant and has many uses, for example in underwater navigation.

In addition, sensitivity to fluctuations in the surrounding magnetic field may allow the detection of submerged masses, such as raw earth deposits.

The challenge is to keep the quantum sensor isolated from other noise that is noise in the data. Some efforts have allowed quantum imaging to mature into short-term applications with state-of-the-art readiness. The potential impact of quantum applications is so enormous that the United States must begin now and move operational applications forward, otherwise it will find itself in a technological chase with a potential adversary.

In July 2020, the White House funded three institutions, the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois and the University of California, as innovation centers in quantum science. Each institute researches a different area of ​​quantum application. An impressive center for quantum research and development has rapidly developed in Boulder, Colorado, around the University of Colorado.

The National Quantum Initiative was not the only signed presidential document. In addition, the Memorandum of National Security mandated the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop quantum-intensive cryptographic standards. A plan to strengthen encryption will be developed in collaboration with industry, research laboratories and others.

The protection of classified data, intellectual property and personal information is an imperative task for governments.

Research and development will continue for decades, but applications are possible now. To date, scientists and research engineers have accelerated development, but potential victims, such as financial institutions, defense and medical research organizations, can no longer stay away. Now is the time to get involved and contribute to the efforts of quantum applications.

So much has been achieved in the last decade, but we are not alone in our progress.

It is worrying that governments with policies that run counter to international stability, such as China and Russia, are also working on quantum technology. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said quantum technology was a major factor in securing Russia’s international leadership. Russia’s declared goal is a quantum computer by 2024. Pressure on quantum technology applications can be observed in every institute and government; while most support US national security interests, others do not.

Waiting to overcome the challenges is not the answer. Institutions, defense, and industry must engage in the transition from theoretical to practical quantum applications. It is the duty of the United States to build its understanding of science and subsequently to introduce technology into daily life while maintaining transactional integrity.

Retired Air Force Colonel John C. Johnson is a former vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman. You can contact him at

topics: Emerging technologies

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