Quantum computing is expected to make existing forms of cybersecurity obsolete, but the coming revolution has not jolted researchers and defense firms to fully invest in the technology, according to the intelligence community, experts and industry officials.
Quantum computing needs strong collaboration between theory and practice, said Christopher Monroe, professor of physics at the University of Maryland and the head of IonQ, a quantum computer manufacturer.
“There is not so much a gap between the U.S. and China as there is between academic eggheads [who] are used to quantum and industry who build things,” said Monroe. “The more interesting development so far has not been from defense contractors, but companies like Google, Intel, Microsoft and IBM — the big computing behemoths,” Monroe said.
A review of SEC filings from five of America’s top cybersecurity contractors — Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Leidos — found that only one, Booz Allen Hamilton, included quantum computing in its 2018 prospectus.
“We are continuing to develop new capabilities in exciting areas, such as quantum computing and deep learning, to create long-term differentiation and value,” Booz Allen Hamilton wrote.
Quantum computing is set to be a presence in these companies’ long-term reality, Monroe said. “If there is a killer application of quantum computing, it is almost certainly going to play into the hands of the Pentagon,” he said.
A defense industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said their company was interested in quantum computing, but business leaders and strategists did not see the short-term applications for the technology.
To be sure, some defense contractors have efforts focusing on the technology, including initiatives that are classified.
Researchers from Raytheon and IBM found in 2017 that quantum computers performed better than normal machines in some fields. In addition, Lockheed Martin is investing in D-Wave, a Canadian company focused in quantum computing.
In December, President Donald Trump signed legislation to incentivize quantum computing. The bill, the Quantum Initiative Act, boosts research efforts from the federal government through a new White House office: the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Some of the field’s leading research already comes from the government. Scientists from the Army’s Research Laboratory found a new way to safeguard quantum information during transmission in November.
“This research has a potential to revolutionize cybersecurity and to enable secure secret sharing and authentication for the war fighter of the future,” Michael Brodsky, a researcher at the lab, said in a statement.
The intelligence community fears that the United States is falling behind China and other countries when it comes to quantum computing. In June, George Barnes, the deputy director of the NSA, said that quantum computing research in the United States was “sub-par.”
“We have to be better at playing the long game,” Barnes said.
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.