Is the U.S. ready for a quantum leap in computing?

Stock illustration ID: 503250016/ by sakkmesterke 

While widespread use of quantum computing is likely still years away, experts stress that government should ramp up preparations now for a future that could disrupt the underpinnings of conventional encryption.

Although its application is still "speculative" in some ways, quantum computing presents the opportunity for faster data processing, advancements in pattern recognition and stronger security, explained Dr. Christopher Monroe, professor of physics at the University of Maryland.

Quantum computing works by replacing the binary zeros and ones of conventional computing with multivariable quantum bits, radically increasing the speed of calculations. But with that technological advancement also comes the threat of making obsolete the fundamental cryptography on which most technology has been built for decades.

Scott Totzke, CEO of the quantum-focused security firm ISARA Corporation, said the advent of quantum computing will upend public key cryptography.

"We’ve fundamentally built a trust system…based on public-key cryptography, which we know to be susceptible to the advent of large-scale quantum computing," he said. "We don’t know what that date is... But we do know the public-key infrastructure, the underlying cryptography that we have built our entire technology industry on since the 70s, is going to be broken, and we need to do something different than what we’re doing today."

There are pockets of government already investing quantum technologies. For example, NIST is requesting submissions for quantum-resistant cryptography through November, and the Departments of Energy and Defense, among others, are also looking at its applications.

However, to prevent the U.S. from falling behind internationally, and from risking the insecurity of all sorts of data, Dr. Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, advocated for a national quantum initiative with a "Manhattan Project-style funding focus."

The Manhattan Project "is not a perfect comparison... but it gets across the sense of urgency," he noted. "The plan for making [the quantum transition] possible has to start now in order to be prepared in a decade’s time, or even less."

Warner Miller, a physics professor at Florida Atlantic University, said that "to be a serious player in this game I think we have to invest substantially more money... in the order of billions."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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