SPECIAL REPORT: Defense Community Slow to Grasp Potential of Quantum-Based Tech

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: iStock

This is part 1 of a 3-part special report on quantum technology.

CHICAGO — Four stories underground — encased in several feet of concrete — is the University of Chicago’s new nanofabrication facility, where researchers apply the principles of quantum physics to real-world problems and technologies.

A small cadre of faculty and graduate students in a clean room bathed in yellow light wear protective clothing to ensure the integrity of the experiments they are conducting, which involves the very matter that comprise the universe: electrons, photons, neutrons and protons.

The William Eckhardt Research Center where they are working is located across the street from where a team led by Enrico Fermi, the architect of the nuclear age, carried out the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Like Fermi’s Manhattan Project invention, what the university’s researchers learn at the Chicago Quantum Exchange could very well usher in a new technological age, experts interviewed said.

Quantum computing, quantum encryption and quantum sensing are three major applications being pursued by the United States and other nations — most notably by China. There is a quantum race underway, and these same experts say the defense and national security community is slow to realize the dire implications of coming in second.

“If you don’t understand something, it is really hard to support it,” Dr. James Canton, president and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, said in an interview. Canton is a futurist and a consultant for the military and intelligence community. There are ongoing debates about the necessity for more investments in quantum computing in the government, he said, but eyes gloss over when terms such as “quantum entanglement” are tossed out.

Meanwhile, China appears to be convinced about the future of quantum applications and is investing large amounts of funding to make itself the world leader in the field by 2030. It scored the first technology breakthrough in the summer of 2017 when it demonstrated the ability to send quantum-encrypted communications from a satellite to a terrestrial ground station.

“Nobody — nobody really understands how significant this is. The Chinese demonstrated brazenly and brilliantly that they had a major breakthrough in communications by deploying the satellite. … It should have been more than a shot across the bow,” Canton said.

Meanwhile, programs in the United States are beginning to coalesce. The office of the secretary of defense has established a quantum sciences point man. Tech giants such as Google, IBM, Microsoft and Intel are building first-generation quantum computers. Congress recently authorized up to $10 billion for federally funded research. And the University of Chicago is attempting to create a quantum sciences hub in Illinois.

“We joke that these clean rooms are the machine shops of the current millennium. This is how you make stuff now. It’s not the lathe and the mill,” said David Awschalom, director of the exchange and Liew Family professor of molecular engineering, as he gave a tour of the facility to a group of journalists. The lab is located deep underground to protect experiments from cell phone signals. The researchers inside are working with beams six nanometers in diameter — about the length of eight atoms placed side by side.

They etch patterns on surfaces, then chemically strip away the layers to make tiny circuits that can control particles. The photolithography process is the reason for the yellow light.

“All of matter and the laws of physical nature are controlled by quantum mechanics. It is just recently we’ve come up with ways to go down to those levels, play with tools and harness them as a way to build a very new technology,” Awschalom said.

The university, along with the two Department of Energy national labs it administers — Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory — and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are part of the quantum innovation hub. The University of Chicago has hired 12 quantum physics faulty members and continues to recruit graduate students into the nascent field.

The United States currently has no quantum workforce to speak of, Awschalom noted. Students have to be trained differently. They learn quantum mechanics a little bit in engineering and physics classes, but not much in computer sciences. The university has created some of the first degrees in the field, but it will probably take a decade or more to create a quantum workforce, he added. The university is receiving Defense Department funding, along with other federal resources, he said.

Joe Lykken, deputy director and chief research officer of Fermilab, said: “Only a half dozen people in the world know how to build a quantum computer. If you don’t have one of those people, forget it.”

The effort to take this basic research and apply it to real-world problems is “going really well,” Awschalom said. And this is sparking quantum technology programs all over the world, and in China which has invested in a $10 billion quantum research center. The European Union, Australia and Japan also have robust programs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is in the early stages of forming the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, which has a mission to expand the emerging U.S. industry, particularly in the fields of quantum computing, quantum communications and quantum sensing, a statement said. All three of these categories have national security applications.

Canton said he is having a hard enough time getting the message through to some members of the military that artificial intelligence is important. Trying to get the importance of quantum sciences across is even harder.

“My whole mission is to try to advise my clients how to understand these emerging technologies because they’re disruptive. You’re talking about super encryption, super speeds — and most importantly — a much deeper multidimensional kind of intelligence. [Quantum] is an accelerator of every other technology — nano, bio, IT, neuro — and we just don’t have enough thinking about this to understand how essential this is.”

Of the three fields, Awschalom said quantum encryption and quantum sensing are good bets to make an impact within the next decade. He is less sure about quantum computing.

Currently, Google has developed a 72-qubit computer. Qubits are the building blocks of matter — electrons, protons, neutrons and photons. They are comparable to the ones and zeros of digital computing, the DNA of biotechnology and the neurons of the brain, Canton said. However, orders of magnitude more than 72 qubits will be needed to create high-capacity quantum computers that will be able to do tasks such as breaking through encryption, he added.

In January, IBM and Chicago Quantum Exchange announced they would be working together on a National Science Foundation funded project, Enabling Practical-Scale Quantum Computing, which will seek to “shorten the timeline to practical quantum computing,” a statement said.

Comparing today’s technology with early computers, Awschalom said, “we are at the vacuum tube level, or the transistor level. I’m not really sure. It’s going fast though.”

One of the more immediate concerns within the national security community is encryption and the possibility that a powerful quantum computer will be able to easily break modern-day secure communications.

An unhacklable network is another possible application for the defense and intelligence community. Secure communications is what China demonstrated in June 2017 when it used quantum entanglement to send data from its Micius satellite to an Earth-based ground station.

Awschalom said the spacecraft’s ongoing experiments have had a big impact in the United States and around the world. China generated entangled states from a geosynchronous satellite locked in orbit and carried out encrypted technical communication between two workstations 1,200 kilometers apart. It later held an encrypted 75-minute video conference with scientists in Vienna, Austria, that extended the distance to 7,500 kilometers, according to press reports.

Awschalom noted that the European Union first proposed the experiment but had trouble funding it. The Chinese offered to do it in their place. Since then, they have been very open about their findings. The international community has offered suggestions and the Chinese are adopting them. “I think competition in science is a really good thing. I think having open competition, like in anything, is really helping. It raises your bar. I think the technical achievement of their satellite project is extraordinary.”

Despite the spirit of international cooperation, the experiment did prompt Congress to provide more funding for basic and applied quantum research. Signed into law in late December, the National Quantum Initiative Act is authorized to provide up to $1.275 billion — subject to annual appropriations — to the Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation over the next five years for research and development of quantum science and information technology.

It also directs the executive branch to develop a 10-year plan to accelerate work in this field, and enhance cooperation between government, industry and academia.
Canton said boosting budgets is a good start, but what is really needed is a consortium that includes the government and companies such as Google and Microsoft. “We need to create a more intimate collaboration with the private sector that has already invested billions of dollars in quantum computing,” he said.

Michael Hayduk, deputy director of the information directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said cooperation with the private sector is going well. The lab is relying on the big companies to develop quantum computers so it can focus on applications that are more unique to the military, such as communications, precision navigation and precision timing. Meanwhile, the Air Force, Army, Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency over the past year have been doing a better job of coordinating their quantum sciences-related research, he said.

The office of the secretary of defense recently appointed Paul Lopata as an undersecretary focusing on quantum sciences, he said.

“There is some really nice coordination going on now across the services. That’s what we’re really looking to do is to kind of get the most bang for our buck — if you will — since we can’t go at it alone,” Hayduk said.

AFRL is working in four primary areas: secure communications, precision timing, precision navigation and quantum computing. It has about $150 million allocated over the next five budget cycles to invest in the field.

As far as computers, the lab is letting private sector companies invest their resources in the hardware. The lab is interested in how to create software that will help it solve problems such as modeling complex chemical processes, or how to make logistics more efficient in rapidly changing warzones, he said.

Creating secure, jam-resistant alternatives to GPS is another application. The lab is investigating a variety of quantum-based sensors to tackle the problem. It is working on the timing aspect separately as it believes it can make global timing synchronized more precisely using quantum physics.

None of this is new — AFRL has been looking into quantum sciences for over a decade — he said, but its research is beginning to gain momentum. “A lot of the efforts are maturing beyond just the purely theoretical and more than just lab experiments. We’re looking to really leverage that within the Air Force and leverage those breakthroughs,” Hayduk said.

The timing and navigation applications have the best chance to emerge in the next five to 10 years, he predicted, with communications and computing being further off in development.

Awschalom said the quantum sensors have a lot of potential. “You can make them well below a micron in scale, tiny fractions of the width of a human hair. You can put them in living cells, you can use them to probe molecules, you can use them to sense electric fields, magnetic fields, temperature, certain chemicals with incredible precision.”

Hayduk said these sensors could be used to better understand chemistry, which would have a big impact on the material sciences. The Navy, for example, could use them to tackle its ship corrosion problem.

Like the University of Chicago, AFRL is also working toward creating the quantum workforce of the future.

“That’s a part of the Air Force strategy — and certainly part of the national strategy as well — in terms of where we find the next generation of not only quantum physicists but people who are comfortable using quantum technology,” Hayduk said. 


Quantum 101: Understanding the Spooky

Quantum technology is the manipulation of neutrons, photons, electrons and protons to perform a task.

These particles, or “qubits,” are the building blocks of matter and understanding how to use them is made all the more difficult because they don’t always behave the way one would expect. “Weird” and “spooky” are terms often used to describe how these particles act. 

Here are a couple definitions to help “untangle” a field of science that is often hard to grasp, but may have profound implications for the national security community.

Entanglement — Said to be one of the most difficult concepts in science to grasp, quantum entanglement is the underlying science behind quantum computing, encryption and communication. One of the rules is that a particle such as a photon exists in all possible states when unobserved but only one state when observed. Entanglement occurs when two particles interact physically. This can be manipulated by shooting a laser through a photon to split it, then sending the pair apart. While the two particles may be separated by vast distances, they somehow remain linked through what Albert Einstein called “spooky action.” They behave the same way even though they could be hundreds of kilometers apart.

Air Force Research Laboratory researchers believe these entangled correlations may one day allow it to create large-scale communications and sensing networks. “We’re very interested in all aspects of this, both ground communications, ground-to-air communications and of course air-to-space communications to solve Air Force problems,” said Michael Hayduk, AFRL’s deputy director of the information directorate.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Quantum Exchange led by the University of Chicago intends to create the first terrestrial quantum communications link. Argonne National Laboratory was one of the first nodes in the DARPAnet, which would later become the internet. The consortium — with partners at AT&T, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech — is working on an Energy Department funded project to connect Argonne with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory 48 kilometers away using the principles of quantum entanglement. The research may lead to a possible next-generation network.  

Superposition — Qubits can exist in different states all at the same time. They can move at different speeds, have different energy levels or sit in different positions.

Superposition in quantum mechanics states that a particle can exist in all different states simultaneously. That gives computing with qubits many more variables than using ones and zeroes, which can lead to vastly more powerful and faster computers. 

Another principle states that attempting to observe or interfere with the particle will result in it being destroyed. That may give rise to completely secure information: “You can be sure no one has eavesdropped,” said David Awschalom, director of the exchange and Liew Family professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago. “A lot of people are interested in business, the government and they’re interested in terms of personal security. You would like your information created in a way that nobody can look at it, right?” 


PART 2: China: A Great Leap Forward in Quantum Tech?

PART 3: The Race for Quantum Resistant Cryptography

Topics: Research and Development, Science and Engineering Technology, Information Technology, Infotech

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