Quantum science builds on the governing hypothesis of how nature works at atomic and subatomic levels. However, quantum science accounts for two important phenomena that differentiate it from classical physics. The first is particle superposition. The second is entanglement.
Classic physics says two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time or be wholly present in more than one place at a time. Quantum physics, however, says that the world is held together by objects that exist in two distinct states simultaneously — a condition called superposition.
For example, a molecule consists of two atoms “glued” together by an electron. This electron could be associated with either atom, but quantum theory holds that the electron must be associated with each atom at the same time for them to be properly joined. This is how we understand everything from photosynthesis to lasers.
Equally mystifying is entanglement. That’s when two or more quantum particles become linked so that any measurement of one immediately determines the state of the others — regardless of the distance between them. Imagine two dimes spinning on opposite sides of the universe, and whenever you stop one from spinning, the other also stops and displays the same value (heads or tails) as the first.
It sounds crazy, but it’s real. And researchers are beginning to leverage these amazing phenomena for technological breakthroughs.
For example, scientists are building computers that use entangled quantum bits (called, “qubits”) to complete calculations that were once thought impossible and at speeds never imagined.
These computers could be used to encrypt secret communications with unbreakable codes. Or to break previously secure encryption in seconds.
We are also developing quantum sensors designed to detect stealth aircraft solely by the atmospheric disturbance they create in flying.
Such advances can be a boon to U.S. national security. But if one of our global competitors makes the breakthroughs first, they may pose a great threat to the U.S.; China is making a real run at gaining the quantum advantage.
Beijing has made achieving quantum advantage a national “megaproject” — one they are backing with a reported $10 billion investment in it National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. This state-led approach allows China to tilt the country’s research and economic power toward serving the government’s highest priorities — like offensive and defensive national security applications.
Still, the U.S. private sector remains the world’s quantum science powerhouse.
Companies like Google, Honeywell, Hughes Research, IBM, Intel, Lockheed-Martin, Microsoft and Northrop Grumman are teaming up with top universities to push quantum computing even further. Additionally, a new brand of quantum-focused investment funds, like Quantum Valley Investments and Quantum Wave Fund, are supporting new start-ups, all of them racing to realize the economic windfall of cracking the quantum code.
But America’s current advantage isn’t guaranteed. To ensure our future national security, the U.S. will need to assure an economic environment that respects the rule of law and rewards private enterprise.
Here, there is work to be done.
Specifically, the U.S. needs to bolster protections for intellectual property rights. It’s essential if we are to become the preferred environment for quantum research and innovation.
Domestically, federal antitrust agencies like the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission should abandon their recent policies that weaken intellectual property rights and re-establish their previous view of patents as property rights meriting strong protections. The U.S. Patent Office should also develop policies to expand, not constrain, protections for issued patents that are subject to administrative review after being granted.
Many of the largest promises of quantum science remain elusive and may ultimately prove unobtainable in the near- to mid-term. Even so, this science is advancing sufficiently to warrant our leaders’ deliberate engagement to assure that the United States will thrive in the emerging quantum future.
• A senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, Klon Kitchen is the author of the recently released report “Quantum Science and National Security: A Primer for Policymakers.”