Scientia potests est or knowledge is power: quantum technology – the race is on

The systems we rely on, from getting paid to making payments, to running the power and infrastructure systems that power our homes, our cities, and our transport, all rely on secure data communications. Knowing how to protect and defend those systems is crucial to how our world works.

At the core of these systems is our ability to understand the mathematics and manage the physics. Most are familiar with the Enigma machine used by Germany in 1940 to encode messages for troop movements. The contributions of Polish codebreaking teams, including mathematicians Rejewski, Zyggalski and Rozycki were foundational to the work of the British team at Bletchley Park[1]. The British team led by Alun Turing built an electronic machine to decrypt the thousands of messages sent each day to direct the enemy troops. The impact these mathematicians made to the war effort should not be underestimated.

The world has changed but enemies still exist, and they are using ‘information’ to enhance their power.

Our sense is the hunt and misuse for information is totally pervasive, occurring well beyond any geographic borders, via our phones, in apps, our lounge room, as forces try to simultaneously convince and undermine, a kind of cyber trench warfare.

In the cyber sphere, not all weapons are equal. There are technologies being researched today that profoundly and unalterably change the cyber domain. And like 1940, there are competing interests. To give you a sense of the scale of investment those interests are making, figure 1 below shows you ‘the state of play’.

 Figure 1 – Quantum investment since 1980 – The scale of investment doesn’t always create competitive advantage, but it usually helps (Source KPMG)

What is quantum technology and why am I linking it so directly to military capability?

The first thing to say is that you are already familiar with quantum technology. It can be found in semiconductors, lasers, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), nuclear power, even in digital cameras. What is new, is our improved scientific understanding of its potential and our ability to build and control these quantum systems.

Properties of entanglement, superposition and quantum tunnelling are opening new practical applications in sensors, communications and computing – all have military applications.

Just take computing, this new science opens up QRNG (Quantum Random Number Generation) for better encryption, QKD (Quantum Key Distribution) for more secure keys and Qubits (quantum bits) for building quantum computers that offer tools to solve problems well beyond what is currently possible – including the potential for exponentially more powerful and complex cyber-attack, and defence.

The use cases of quantum applicable to the military cyber domain exist today. Tomorrow the truly ‘nuclear’ applications that various players are searching for include quantum internet, quantum radar, quantum inertial navigation and quantum underwater surveillance (imagine being unable to hide in any ocean, one cannot say this technology still is imaginary. A notable risk for any nation planning to invest A$100b+ in nuclear submarines).

The Human Element

But one thing that is common to all these applications is the human element. There is still a need to have capable people with the skills and (critically) the culture to apply and implement new knowledge and these technologies – this continues to be our most significant risk.

This isn’t a comment for government or the military, it’s a call to action for industry. Like the nuclear revolution, the quantum revolution will deliver collateral damage. As nation states and non-state actors fight, it will be the bank, the store, the warehouse, the utility, the power plant that is steamrolled on the way to higher goals. Your business.

Who is winning?

Good question, and one that’s not easily answered – as it wasn’t in 1942. The various players aren’t updating us on their various milestone achievements on Twitter unfortunately. The best we get is examples ‘in the battlespace’. Hints of new weapons, new defences, frighteningly fast computational speeds. Examples are described in Microsoft’s Ukraine Hybrid War Report[2] where their Threat Intelligence Centre responded to 6 Russia-aligned actors who initiated 237 attacks before the invasion. The scale and speed of operations targeting public and private infrastructure is radically different in 2022.

The amount of national investment is a good predicator of success. When the US committed 130,000 people to the nuclear task – they pulled ahead. In 2022 the biggest investor is China. Conservatively they invest as much of the rest of world combined. It’s possible that the innovation agenda together with the political and economic environments in other geographies, will enable a different rate of innovation.

Given we’re here, what should we do?

Speaking to the business audience, the call to action must focus on your knowledge base and your people. Quantum isn’t an interesting laboratory experiment anymore, in the same way cyber warfare isn’t just something that nation states do to each other. Your business is in the front line, and your people need to be trained, a cyber culture developed, to augment and support the system changes you and your suppliers will roll out. Only then can you begin to prepare for this quantum future.

And for government the aggregation of investments across nations – additive rather than duplicating – must be the key task. In 1941 it was the UK in cryptography and the US in nuclear, that did the heavy lifting, but in 2022 it will be the joint and coordinated investment that will make the difference. As we’ve seen work successfully in the context of Ukraine – a united front of action across government, business and community can be a game changer.

The risk is real and now is the time to understand and mitigate these risks.

Scientia potests est is attributed to Francis Bacon in 1597

[1] Nature 561, 307-308 (2018) doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-06149-y
[2] https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2022/04/27/hybrid-war-ukraine-russia-cyberattacks/
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