Cybersecurity & Tech Foreign Relations & International Law

The U.S. Needs a Strategy for the Second Quantum Revolution

Brandon Kirk Williams
Friday, May 3, 2024, 9:41 AM

It should proactively address emerging development and security issues related to encryption and the various industries this revolution will touch.

Interior of an IBM Quantum System One model on display at CES 2020 (IBM Research,; CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED

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The world is on the cusp of a second quantum revolution, and it will likely prove as consequential as the first that delivered nuclear weapons and energy, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, and transistors. While the United States once dominated quantum research and development, its lead has since slipped. Failure to act quickly may create an opening for China to overtake the United States in a race for one of the 21st century’s most-prized technologies. The United States needs an unclassified national quantum strategy that outlines a plan to promote and protect the United States’s quantum ecosystem and updates the 2018 National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science—which came packaged within the now-expired National Quantum Initiative Act. The 2018 strategic overview was the first foray into federal guidance on quantum development. Reauthorizing the National Quantum Initiative Act, in addition to issuing an updated strategic overview, would demonstrate federal commitment to quantum leadership. Policymakers should adopt a proactive rather than reactive approach that connects ways, ends, and means to preserve the United States’s ability to steer the second quantum revolution. 

Why Now?

Quantum computing, sensing, and communications technologies utilize the unique properties of quantum mechanics for vast improvements in speed of computation, hyper-precision for sensing, and fidelity of communications. A quantum computer has the potential to process calculations thousands of times faster than most of today’s computers. Rapid advancements herald a new transition to the second quantum revolution. Traditionally, quantum computers faced repeated errors from interference known as noise. But IBM announced in summer 2023 that it has corrected these faults and demonstrated quantum computing utility for the first time—marked by a quantum computer’s capacity to overcome errors to produce results that could lead to discoveries.

A Microsoft and Quantinuum quantum computing announcement from April 2023 and two additional announcements from December (described in the next paragraph) highlight the urgency of the quantum moment. 

First, IBM’s Quantum Summit rolled out its System Two computer and an updated road map to debut new products in its quantum architecture over the next decade. System Two is a modular, scalable quantum computing architecture that will incorporate IBM’s quantum processors. Days after the rollout of System Two, a Harvard team published the results of a neutral atom computer’s advances in error correction that could outline a path to an operational, fault-tolerant quantum computer, and one of the team members projected a scaling pathway to 10,000 qubits. Broadly, fault tolerance would correct for errors that occur in quantum computers and enable quantum computers to produce results that can both be reproduced and deliver revolutionary impact.

These developments are promising, but only the government has the convening power to coordinate with industry, academic, and government stakeholders to shape the future of quantum and lead engagement in this market that is projected to jump from $928 million in 2022 to $6.5 billion by 2030. 

There is fierce global competition for leadership in quantum technologies. According to a study by the consulting firm McKinsey, China’s reported investment of over $15 billion in quantum research and development as well as European and Asian nations’ considerable spending is challenging the United States’s preeminence in quantum. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Critical Technology Tracker charts the significant increases in publications and patents and the talent cultivation on the part of China and other nations that have challenged the United States’s historical dominance of the field. 

The advances by companies and nations in quantum computing could imperil the encryption used today for all secure communications. To prepare for strategic surprise, the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) after years of testing released several algorithms that are resistant to quantum computing. Google even added quantum-resistant encryption to its Chrome browser last year. Apple’s iMessage now uses post-quantum cryptographic protocols to protect messaging. Cracking encryption is an intractable mathematical puzzle even using the most cutting-edge and high-performance computers. No one can accurately predict when a quantum computer would break today’s cryptography. In 1994, mathematician Peter Shor first discovered an algorithm for a quantum computer to compromise encryption. In October 2023, Shor suggested that it may be a decade or longer before a quantum computer would work for his algorithm. A novel solution proposed by a computer scientist suggests quantum computing could break encryption sooner than that.

But encryption breaking is certainly not the only consequence of quantum computing the U.S. government should consider. Before quantum computers break encryption, they are likely to trigger a paradigm shift in the industries sustaining the United States’s economic competitiveness. McKinsey estimates that the four industries likely to capitalize most significantly on advances in quantum—automotive, chemical, financial services, and life sciences—may increase $1.3 trillion in value by 2035 by integrating quantum computing into business analysis and decisions. Sectors utilizing mass amounts of data will be the most likely beneficiaries of quantum advances, because quantum computing has the potential to dramatically increase the efficiency of data analysis. 

Quantum computing promises to accelerate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning by improving model efficiency and slashing the time needed to train models as parameters climb exponentially. These advances are likely to aid in the development of solutions to real-world problems. But quantum computers will also aid in discovering new pathways to optimize supply chains, to accelerate and protect financial transactions, to facilitate new discoveries in materials science, and to spark a revolution in health care. 

Biomedicine and biotechnology stand to gain in the fields of genomics, acute imaging, drug discovery and design, and protein folding. The health care industry is already embracing the potential of quantum advances, and a strategy will be vital for promoting the competitiveness of the United States’s biotechnology and biomedical sectors. Moderna inked a deal with IBM to use its full stack of quantum tools to improve mRNA vaccines. The Wellcome Leap’s Quantum for Bio program selected candidates for up to $50 million of research funding to accelerate the development of new quantum algorithms to revolutionize health care. And the Cleveland Clinic adopted IBM’s System One quantum computer to propel research related to some of medicine’s most complex problems. 

But accompanying these benefits will be emerging concerns about sustaining economic competitiveness and defending against novel biosecurity threats. The cost of quantum computers will likely prevent terrorists from weaponizing quantum-designed pathogens, but adversaries will harness quantum in search of biosecurity and bioeconomy advantages in coming years. Chinese biotechnology firms like BGI harvest a mountain of global genetic data annually. These companies bank biodata and will continue to collect health biodata through legal and illicit means. Processing the mountains of data is and will continue to be a vexing problem. Turning to quantum computing may overcome a processing hurdle for Chinese biodata companies and the Chinese government. President Xi Jinping’s stated aspirations to lead in quantum and biology stretch back years, and Xi’s public statements reflect extreme ambitions in this space. 

In 2013, Chinese physicists launched a plan to lead the world in quantum technologies with Xi’s direct approval, unleashing a torrent of research and development resources that may total over $15 billion. Physicist Pan Jianwei has helped lead this initiative and convince Xi to elevate quantum among Chinese technological security and economic initiatives. Pan supervised path-breaking quantum communications advances to deliver a purportedly unhackable ground- and space-based communications architecture. China’s startups and legacy companies—many with the help of government labs or funding—are expanding the country’s lead in quantum technologies by increasing the number of quantum patents, publications, and products belonging to or coming from Chinese companies. Questions linger regarding whether China’s surge in patents demonstrates convincing momentum or artificially inflates China’s record. Regardless, China’s rise in quantum computing has amplified worries that it would use a quantum computer to compromise encryption used around the world daily in secure communications and everyday messaging. 

For the United States and its allies, the competitive dynamics of a race for quantum highlights the imperative of research security. Intelligence officials from the Five Eyes countries of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have expressed concerns that Chinese offensive cyber operations have ramped up and will continue to promote intellectual property theft of quantum and other technologies. Chinese threat actors will leverage AI in sophisticated hacks, and protecting research and intellectual property will become even more important and challenging over time. 

A New Quantum Strategy 

Congress is weighing a renewal of the bipartisan National Quantum Initiative Act—which has the 2018 strategy packaged within it—that expired in September. Any plans for renewing the act should mandate a national strategy to nurture and defend the United States’s quantum industry to promote its leadership as the world advances toward the second quantum revolution. The 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act allocated $1.275 billion for opening research and development centers, authorized the National Quantum Initiative to convene quantum experts to monitor quantum advancements, and sponsored the creation of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. The accelerating tempo of the international quantum race requires serious evaluation of how the United States can invest domestically, cultivate a reliable talent pipeline, and collaborate with its closest allies. A national strategy can prepare policymakers to take a proactive posture in guiding the country’s quantum trajectory. 

The new strategy should be written by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in conjunction with the National Security Council, the National Science Foundation, and interagency partners like the departments of Energy, State, and Defense. OSTP has coordinated the implementation of the National Quantum Initiative Act and is poised to convene quantum stakeholders to write a forward-looking document. In fact, OSTP’s National Quantum Coordination Office deserves praise for its steady cadence of reports and persistence. A strategy should begin with a foundational assessment of the competitive dynamics associated with quantum computing and recommend policies to ensure leadership, seeking to leverage extant national capabilities and those being developed. Any successful strategy, though, must balance a focus on these competitive exigencies against the dual-use dangers associated with quantum technologies. 

The U.S. government occupies the principal position to safeguard and bolster domestic and allied quantum industries. A proactive strategy can articulate how future administrations will heed best practices from today’s innovation competition with China: support U.S.-based standard-setting organizations; ensure safe-by-design principles for all quantum hardware and devices such as sensors; utilize export controls in anticipation of marketable quantum products; and monitor outbound capital investment. Government funding will also remain vital to facilitate quantum innovation that delivers practical national security applications and ensures the nation is prepared for quantum computing’s disruption to cybersecurity. 

The largest scale quantum-enabled cybersecurity disruption is most likely to come in the form of encryption breaking. Although it may not be possible in the near term for a quantum computer to compromise cryptography, a consensus among academics, industry, and cryptographers has formed that adopting post-quantum algorithms (algorithms that protect data by using a cryptographic architecture that resists quantum decryption) is the best tool to preserve today’s secrets. Malicious cyber actors may be incentivized to steal data for attacks that take the form of “harvest now, decrypt later” when a quantum computer can unlock secrets in the future. This concern is motivating governments and companies to take action. 

Despite these reasonable concerns, quantum computing will disrupt biotechnology, finance, and other economically vital fields before a quantum computer compromises today’s encryption. The national strategy should clarify the stakes of the technological competition for encryption and cybersecurity not just for industry leaders and for the U.S. government, but for the nation as a whole. 

NIST’s algorithms for post-quantum cryptography (PQC) are the best solution to prepare for the quantum future. The Biden administration’s 2022 National Security Memorandum 10 establishes timelines for transitioning the U.S. government and the nation to PQC. OSTP can highlight the national priority for standardizing PQC across federal agencies and the web of users dotting the map such as small businesses, school districts, and critical infrastructure operators. A national strategy can serve as a vehicle to broadcast a road map for nationwide PQC migration and develop an implementation plan that mitigates risk. According to a survey on PQC conducted by the accounting firm KPMG, 32 percent of experts did not value PQC or cryptographic agility. Readying the nation for the transition will be a herculean task, and direction from the White House—specifically, OSTP—for the development and implementation of a national migration plan may be necessary to initiate the sweeping PQC overhaul ahead as malicious actors seek to exploit U.S. systems.

But getting the U.S. domestic quantum house in order will not be sufficient. Since the federal government issued the 2018 National Strategic Overview, global cooperation and competition for quantum technologies has exploded. The United States has a deep well of quantum soft power: preeminent universities, pioneering quantum companies such as IBM and Google, a decentralized research and development ecosystem, a healthy startup landscape, and lucrative career pathways. Any strategy must devise policies to nurture this soft power for the contest ahead and develop mechanisms to cooperate with allies. Simply put, the United States needs allies to stay competitive

NATO’s quantum strategic vision pledges a “quantum-ready alliance” to anticipate fast-breaking changes to collective defense. NATO’s plan will draw heavily from European and U.S. research and development ecosystems. Even with allies on board, though, the United States’s soft power may be insufficient to overcome a direct, well-funded challenge from China to dominate quantum. A quantum strategy should evaluate the nature and scale of this challenge and develop mechanisms that account for both cooperation and competition.

A quantum strategy is also necessary to devise a whole-of-nation quantum talent plan for the United States that leverages federal and state capabilities in collaboration with industry for every level of education—for those in school and for professionals. McKinsey estimates that the United States lags behind the European Union, India, and China in producing the talent to sustain a thriving quantum ecosystem. The solution, however, is not more quantum physics PhDs. 

A heterogeneous STEM workforce with bachelor’s and master’s graduates who can upskill is the best route for the United States to meet its domestic workforce requirements. The quantum industry is stepping in to strengthen the talent pipeline. IBM donated more than $100 million to historically black colleges and universities for quantum education. And Google is joining this effort with the Qubit by Qubit program to introduce high schoolers and college students to quantum. 

Despite these impressive investments, concerted direction from the federal government and state governments on domestic education and immigration is necessary for quantum. The National Q-12 Education Partnership’s K-12 Framework establishes important scaffolding for national standards that states can adopt. Some states, such as Ohio, are adding quantum to curriculum. The University of California, Los Angeles, went further by buying an abandoned shopping mall and will allocate half of the physical space to quantum research and development. 

Additionally, states may serve as transformative workforce incubators along with the private sector. Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis is one among many governors who are championing initiatives to teach quantum to college students. These state-by-state efforts, though, will be insufficient without a national strategy, as they will likely generate an uneven distribution of nationwide education,while leaving other issues unaddressed. A national strategy can promote the necessity of quantum education to nurture the talent pipeline’s shortfalls. But education alone will not be enough to address the U.S.’s quantum talent gaps. 

The United States succeeded in first harnessing quantum technologies thanks to an influx of emigrating physicists before World War II, and the centrality of immigrants for advancing the U.S. quantum ecosystem is unlikely to change in the future. Despite partisan rancor over immigration, bipartisan efforts like the Keep STEM Talent Act illustrate that there are areas for compromise across the aisle. But immigration reform is overdue to sustain the United States’s competitive edge in quantum and other STEM fields. Failure to find a lasting immigration solution will constrain the United States at the moment it should be welcoming highly trained individuals to nurture a national quantum ecosystem. A message emerging from OSTP via a quantum strategy will stress the need for immigration reform. 

A quantum strategy for the United States must also address the threat to the United States’s advantages in current and future intellectual property (IP). FBI Director Christopher Wray and Five Eyes partners warned of China’s IP theft campaigns targeting quantum and other technologies. Although the 2022 National Security Memorandum emphasized the centrality of safeguarding IP, a strategy can help push forward the conversation among government representatives, industry, and academia about how best to defend IP. International scientific cooperation has been a hallmark of quantum innovation, and securitizing research may stifle creativity and communication. An effective strategy will balance these security and collaboration interests, seeking to maximize both. If the ends of a quantum strategy are to ensure U.S. leadership, then an OSTP-led strategy can start the conversation about how to preserve the global connective tissue that will promote quantum innovation and security, advancing their symbiotic relationship. 


The second quantum revolution is coming, and the United States must prepare by formalizing a strategy to best anticipate its effects. Policymakers have been forced to embrace AI funding, regulation, and government workforce recruitment after ChatGPT’s release altered the technology policy landscape. To avoid the urgent state brought on by AI advancements, Washington can proactively shape a future where the United States preserves its historic leadership in quantum technologies. An unclassified national strategy will signal to the private sector, allies, and the public that the United States is readying for a technological transformation that may reconfigure our social, economic, and security order.

Editor’s Note: The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Security, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or the U.S. government. 

Brandon Kirk Williams is a postdoctoral cybersecurity research fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He earned a History PhD from the University of California, Berkeley focusing on US national security history.

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