The U.S. Is Facing A New ‘Sputnik Moment’: The Race For Quantum Technology Leadership Is Ripe With Strategic Surprise
The title above is from C.I. Max Nikias’s Op-Ed in the May 13, 2018 edition of the Washington Post. Mr. Nikias is the President of the University of Southern California; and, a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Sputnik, was the world’s first artificial satellite to be successfully launched into space — into a low, elliptical Earth orbit, on October 4, 1957. It was a a launch ‘heard’ around the world; and, both a strategic surprise, and a huge wake-up call for the United States. The American national security establishment and the populace were shocked that the Soviet Union had beaten us in space. And, you have to remember the context of the time. It was in the early days of the Cold War; but, it was red hot, as Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, among others, were warning of a massive attempt by the Soviet Union to subvert and undermine a burgeoning American superpower.
Mr. Nikias’ begins his article, “After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, we saw how the federal investment in U.S. private industry, and academic research allowed the U.S. to catch up, and win the space race — and, hold decades of military and technology dominance. There is no doubt: America emerged victorious from the Cold War [in large part] because of its investments in science, [engineering], and technology.” We certainly got ‘religion’ after the Sputnik launch.
“Today,” Mr. Nikias contends, “the landscape of conflict is increasingly being driven by a new set of factors, which the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Daniel Coats summed up [in recent Congressional testimony/threat briefing] as global “competition for technological superiority.” “Yet,” Mr. Nikias wrote, “most of our advanced technologies are still largely based on Cold War-era inventions.”
“The development of quantum technology presents the United States with a new “Sputnik moment,” Mr. Nikias argues. “Quantum systems promise to upend everything that came before. But, once again, America has some catching up to do,” he warns.
“A new national strategy, like the one this nation embarked on following the Sputnik launch will help get us there. And yes, the stakes are just that high. If not higher,” Mr. Nikias wrote.
“The science is famously hard to grasp; but, this is what’s important: Quantum tech takes advantage of quantum physics to manipulate atoms and subatomic particles in new, potentially powerful ways,” Mr. Nikias observes. “For example,” he adds, “the speed and power of today’s computers are physically limited to the transistors that carry out their functions. That’s because transistors are basically on/off switches for the flow of electrons in computers (typically represented in values in zeros and ones, or “bits.”
“But, quantum computing promises a way around this limitation through the quirks of quantum physics,” Mr. Nikias wrote. “Specifically, the bits in quantum computers can exist in more than one state at a time, [and] can influence each other instantaneously, from great distances, and can act as particles, and waves simultaneously. These new bits — known as quantum bits, or “qubits,” create the potential to process data much faster than traditional computers.”
“This technology holds immense promise,” Mr. Nikias wrote. “It could allow us to communicate faster, more accurately, and more securely than ever before — meeting not only the security challenges of tomorrow; but, also revolutionizing everything from code-breaking, to cyber security, to climate modeling and opening new frontiers in medicine and materials science.”
“Whoever gets this technology first, will also be able to cripple traditional defenses, and power grids, and manipulate the global economy,” Mr. Nikias warns. “The surest way to deter such behavior is to win this race.”
“Yet many suspect that China is already pulling ahead,” Mr. Nikias wrote. “Although the country’s total investment is unknown, the Chinese government is building a $10-billion dollar, 4-million-square-foot, National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences — due to open in two years.”
“China has already launched into orbit, the “Quantum Experiments at Space Scale,” satellite [something I have written about extensively on this blog],” Mr. Nikias wrote. “Using quantum communication technology, the satellite successfully sent “unbreakable” code from space last year/2017,” which I wrote about at the time.
“In comparison to China’s investment, U.S. government-funded research in quantum technology stood at just $300M a year, as of 2016,” Mr. Nikias wrote.
“In 1958, the year after America was jolted into action by the launch of Sputnik, NASA was given an initial budget of less than $800M in today’s dollars,” Mr. Nikias informs us. “By 1962, after the United States once again came in second — NASA’s budget jumped to more than $10B. America never looked back.”
“A similar misfire in the race for quantum technology would not be as easy to overcome,” Mr. Nikias warns. “If the United States is to lead, immediate investment is needed to fund advances in quantum encryption, quantum computing, and quantum communication.”
“Some of this is already underway, but we are only scratching the surface,” Mr. Nikias argues. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has listed quantum technology as one of its ten big ideas; and, has made multi-million dollar investments in secure communications research. And, the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which operates under the [direction of] the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), recently selected my [Mr. Nikias’s] university, the University of Southern California, to lead a consortium of institutions to build and test 100-Quibit quantum machines. The largest quantum computer currently operating is a 72-Quibit system — built by Google.”
“Other institutions are breaking important ground in this area as well,” Mr. Nikias tells us, “including Harvard University, and the University of Maryland. But, these efforts will only mark a watershed if our nation prioritizes quantum research as it did aerospace and defense in the mid-20th century.”
“Like then, critical partnerships between academia, government, and the private sector can build the human capital we need to lead in the quantum era,” Mr. Nikias noted.
“But, if we do not take appropriate action, America’s dominance in a technology-driven world will be short-lived,” Mr. Nikias concludes. “Congress should use the 2019 budget debate to form a national quantum strategy; and, to ensure it is funded appropriately — not only next year, but in the years to come.”
“Our leaders did not fail us in 1957; our leaders cannot fail us now,” Mr. Nikias ended.
Counting on Congress to do anything future oriented is a pipe dream I am afraid. And, while quantum computing should no doubt be a very high national security priority for the United States — so should artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, miniature/micro robotics, big data mining, preventing a killer asteroid strike, preventing/mitigating the next global pandemic, reducing our national debt, and so on. There is a plethora of high-priority national security issues that need our focused/determined attention, and funding.
What I worry about is the lack of commitment to America as the world’s superpower — that is germinating in our private sector — especially Silicon Valley. There are reports almost daily of Google workers leaving the company, and/or expressing opposition to the company’s work with the U.S. defense and intelligence organizations. In 1957, corporate America and the private sector, proudly supported and bonded with U.S. defense and intelligence organizations — after being part of helping arm America to help defeat Nazism and Imperial Japan. Sadly, in 2018, many of our leading edge technology entities, are lead and comprised of individuals who lack appreciation and understanding of what it means to be an American; and, why it is so vitally important that we remain the alpha male of the world. My fear is that we may not get the kind of vital private sector help and support for the U.S. government with respect to quantum computing — that was so vital to winning the space race in the 1960’s. John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you; but, what you can do for your country,” may well fall on deaf ears if it were uttered today.
There are of course, many bright lights, with companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Blue Origin, pushing the boundaries of deep space, or companies like Google and Nvidia pursuing advancements in artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. But, will these companies be willing to partner with our defense and intelligence entities — as corporate America did in the 1960’s? Edward Snowden sure made that less likely, as he fostered a movement that repulses against supporting government initiatives such as quantum computing.
There is little doubt that quantum computing is a race worth winning. There is much doubt…..that we have it within us to recapture the kind of aspirational and inspirational momentum that we rode all the way to the Moon and back in 1969. V/R, RCP, www.fortunascorner.com