The Quantum Competition We Can’t Ignore

Security CEO and Founder of Safe Quantum Inc., working with data-driven companies to define, develop and deploy quantum-safe technologies.

When marketers talk about a company’s key differentiators, they often start with the three P’s: people, products and processes. Given you have the right talent, great technology and the smartest delivery methodology, chances are you have a winning combination.

If we apply those same criteria to the state of quantum computing, the United States isn’t winning — we’re battling for second place behind China.

Quantum computers use the physics of light to exponentially speed processing and create seemingly airtight cryptographic chains.

With the development of high-qubit number, error-corrected quantum computers, security can take two paths: encryption and processing power. Quantum-based encryption is virtually unbreakable, even by a quantum computer. But, a bad actor deploying a quantum computer can break today’s mathematical encryption — and perhaps tomorrow’s post-quantum algorithms — much, much faster than traditional computers.

In the race for quantum mastery, the risks to corporate intellectual property, personal data and mission-critical systems will only increase the longer the United States allows China to extend its lead.

People: Siphoning Off Key Talent

The key to any technology initiative is finding the right people with the right skills and knowledge. On that, China has been aggressive about finding and recruiting world-class talent, including some of America’s best and brightest.

In fact, the Chinese government has developed more than 200 recruitment programs, perhaps foremost among them the Thousand Talents Plan, launched in 2008 specifically to attract U.S. researchers and scientists. The Thousand Talents Plan exchanges salaries, grants, lab space and other incentives to bring key players in the U.S. science brain trust to China.

A U.S. Senate report addressing threats to American business claimed that China abused the U.S. tradition of information-sharing among the research and academic community for its own economic and military gain. The Chinese government committed more than $2 trillion to cultivate its knowledge base, not to advance science, but “to advance China’s national security interests,” according to the Senate report.

Not only did China capitalize on U.S. research, but it also took American researchers out of the development loop, closing the knowledge gap on both sides of the equation.

And it’s not just American intellectual property going east. A recent analysis of researchers studying artificial intelligence (AI) — like quantum science, another rising technology with great promise — found that among leading Chinese experts, 56% of them had studied, worked or lived in the United States.

Products: Committed To Quantum Research

While this knowledge harvest exacts its toll, the U.S. government isn’t doing itself any favors either.

On one hand, the National Science Foundation and private donors have invested more than $625 million to create quantum information science research institutes nationwide, clearly seeing the value in expanding exploration of quantum technology.

And the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by both chambers of Congress in December, contained a provision that promises to increase government spending on quantum computing, AI and 5G technology by $10 billion annually over the next five years.

Yet, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is focused instead on applying mathematical algorithms to quantum cryptography, has decried some quantum-based encryption solutions.

This math-based approach to computer security has been the standard — before quantum computing. And a multimodal “defense in-depth” strategy always makes sense.

But based on my 30-plus years of security experience, it just doesn’t make sense to fault approaches and possibly stymy research in a technology that has the power to break any kind of traditional encryption.

Processes: Bringing Quantum Solutions To Market

Patents filed are one measure of innovation, and China has done something remarkable over the past 10 years. Compared to U.S. filings, China has gone from a huge deficit, filing almost 33,000 fewer patents in 2010, to finally surpassing the U.S. in 2019, submitting 58,990 patent applications, compared to 57,840 for the U.S. Not surprisingly, the inflection point for China’s meteoric rise can be traced back to 2008 and the launch of the Thousand Talents Plan.

Specific to quantum-related patent filings, at least for now, the U.S. is maintaining the advantage. This analysis of European Union patent data shows that the U.S. overwhelmingly leads the rest of the world in converting research into possible commercial applications.

And with the talents of companies like IBM, Intel, Toshiba, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs reporting a steady stream of quantum innovations, the fight isn’t over.

But if anything, China has proven it knows how to turn the tide.

And perhaps we are learning that the honorable practice of leading the world in research has crossed the line to potential corporate and national espionage, right in the open. The American business community can’t afford to let that happen. How will your business heed the call?

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