The universities and research institutions in the United States focusing on quantum computing are “sub-par,” a top National Security Agency official said June 21.
The complaint is among a laundry list of examples, topped by cybersecurity, where American innovation in the intelligence field is struggling, said George Barnes, deputy director at the NSA.
“We have to be better at playing the long game,” he said. Barnes added that the Chinese “can play the long game” and “they are taking steps that might not be realized for 20 years.”
The warnings, made at the Capitol Hill National Security Forum in Washington, highlighted mistrust between the government and private sector, as well as the structural challenges of supporting innovation.
Whether it is quantum computing, space or artificial intelligence, Robert Cardillo, Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency worried that “the moment will be too late” for American innovation.
Experts say that when quantum computers are fully operational, they will upend the use of password-protected systems, artificial intelligence and other areas of information technology.
“Whoever achieves quantum first, everything they are doing and have been doing is irrelevant,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said. He added the United States needs to treat quantum the way it treated the Y2K crisis, where the government “spent billions of dollars and spent a decade preparing … We need to be the leader.”
Hurd said that he supports a recently proposed bill from Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that aims to “accelerate quantum research and development.”
But the intelligence officials at the forum said that the very nature of American government that prioritizes short-term gains may harm innovation. With their centralized five-year plans, China does not have the potential sequesters and fluctuating budgets that are features of the U.S. government.
Rob Joyce, the newly installed senior adviser at the NSA, said that government needs to give “more people the license to fail.” He said that while the agency doesn’t want to squander taxpayer money, “oversight regulation” does not encourage innovation.
Joyce said that the agency needs to boost partnerships with the banking industry, power companies and other areas of critical infrastructure because government has moved to a “support” role.
“We are not the finishers now,” Joyce said.
Asked what the most important emerging threat was for the NSA, Barnes answered with one word: “Cybersecurity.”
“The attack surface is broad and the solution requires government and the public sector together,”Barnes added.
Barnes said that that agency is not used to working with the private sector however, and it harms cybersecurity. “Trust is an issue.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.