Quantum Defense – The Race to Military Applications of Fundamental Science

The first superpower to harnesses quantum science will achieve military super-powers, Defense One reports: unbreakable communication security, and quantum supercomputers much more powerful than today’s machines. As usual, the race is between the US and China.

Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall said:

Much like autonomy, quantum sciences is an area that could yield fundamental changes in military capabilities.

A Billion-Fold Increase in Defense Computing Power

Military ComputingQuantum computers are “as different from regular computers as humans are from jellyfish.” While traditional computers encode information in classical bits that are in well-defined states – on or off, zero or one – quantum computers rely on quantum bits (qubits) that exhibit the ghostly superpositions typical of quantum physics – zero and one, on and off at the same time.

First introduced in 1957 by theoretical physicist Hugh Everett, the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics says that the weird and counter-intuitive quantum superpositions extend across parallel universes. A qubit in a quantum superposition of zero and one states exists in two parallel universes. Similarly, two qubits require four parallel universes, and so forth. Doing the math, it’s easy to see that a system of 1000 qubits spans a huge number of parallel universes.

Based on the MWI, an imprecise but suggestive analogy can be established between a quantum computer and many different computers in parallel universes, which collaborate to speed up a computation. For example, today’s encryption codes could be easily cracked by trying many (actually, a huge number of) possible solutions in parallel.

Recently, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research arm of US intelligence, launched a research program to overcome the current practical limitations of quantum computing. In May, the US Department of Defense announced a $45 million award to develop the first U.S prototype of a scalable quantum network with memory and stated:

Quantum-physics-based computing could increase by a billion-fold computing capability critical to accelerating the building-blocks for game-changing capabilities in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Major technology companies including Google, Lockheed Martin, and IBM, are exploring quantum computing as well. Intel recently announced a collaboration with TNO and QuTech, the quantum institute of the Delft University of Technology, to accelerate advancements in quantum computing. Intel, persuaded that quantum computing is a strategic technology, will invest US$50 million.

If future quantum computers threaten the security of today’s encryption methods, another side of the quantum coin – quantum cryptography – can permit unbreakable encryption. In fact, quantum cryptography could offer complete security based on physics, invulnerable to computing power.

The US government wants to boost national security with quantum networks protected by the laws of fundamental physics, but China might get here first. In fact, China plans to complete the installation of the world’s longest quantum communication network stretching 2,000km (1,240miles) from Beijing to Shanghai by 2016, International Business Times reports. Chinese scientists are also making advances toward quantum communication satellites that support Quantum Key Distribution (QKD).

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.