U.S. National Security May Soon Depend on Something Most Americans Have Never Heard of—the “Qubit”
Miles Taylor, former Google advanced technology lead, discusses the quantum computing future.
When Miles Taylor first stepped foot in Google’s quantum computing laboratory, he knew he was somewhere special. “You felt like you were in the lab where they built the Apollo 11 command module that went to the Moon,” Taylor reflected in a recent interview. “There was historical significance in the air.”
Before joining Google, Miles Taylor was a top intelligence and cybersecurity expert at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), eventually becoming DHS chief of staff (Taylor later resigned in protest).
Of all the threats that kept him up at night, one that Taylor worried about the most was that another country might develop a high-performing quantum computer before the United States. Why? As he explains in a recent opinion piece, featured below, the technology has the potential to “supercharge the artificial intelligence arms race”-meaning that it will lead to machines that can break encryption, robots that can think, and autonomous weapon systems that are faster, smarter, and more lethal than humans.
America falling behind in that race would be dangerous.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Taylor says, “the economic potential is enormous. This technology will reshape society in amazing ways. But we have to stay ahead on the national security side, too.”
“Unlike classical computers, which rely on long strings of ones and zeros,” he writes, “quantum computers use ‘qubits,’ which harness the power of physics to crunch vastly larger amounts of data.”
In short, the quantum computers of the future will make today’s supercomputers look like cheap calculators, unlocking unforeseen possibilities in technology, healthcare, science, and beyond.
While he was at Google, Miles Taylor worked with government officials at the highest levels to advance U.S. investment in this emerging technology space, including bringing them out to California to see the company’s nascent quantum machines.
Now that he has left the tech giant, Taylor is dedicating more time to making sure the United States stays in the lead of the race to build the world’s best quantum computers. He now works at the R Street Institute as a Senior Fellow leading their quantum computing policy program-and trying to wake up policy makers to the critical importance of this nascent field.
You can read Taylor’s most recent piece below.
The “Qubit Military Advantage”-And Why U.S. Power Might Depend on It
A top U.S. company recently announced plans to build a fully functioning quantum computer by the end of the decade. The timeline got the tech world’s attention, but it should be an even bigger wake-up call for the U.S. national security community.
Quantum computing is about to “supercharge” the artificial intelligence (AI) arms race, giving nations that have early quantum capabilities a serious competitive edge over rivals. If the United States fails to take near-term legislative and executive action, the country risks falling behind, an outcome which could have lethal consequences.
AI is already poised to make future weapons systems faster, more agile, and almost impossible for human operators to match, something defense officials have warned about, including after an F-16 pilot lost a virtual dogfight last year to an AI system, 5-0. With quantum-processing speeds, warfare will enter a highly unpredictable era.
Unlike classical computers, which rely on long strings of ones and zeros, quantum computers use “qubits,” which harness the power of physics to crunch vastly larger amounts of data.
Companies are already using basic versions of such machines today to solve real-world problems, with some claiming to have demonstrated “quantum supremacy” over classical computers by solving problems in mere seconds with simple quantum machines that would take the world’s fastest supercomputers thousands of years to untangle. What’s more, for every additional qubit added to a quantum computer, its processing power doubles.
The possibilities from this technology-in medicine, transportation, environmental science, and beyond-are endless, from modeling complex climate-change scenarios to helping robots learn organically.
So what does it mean for defense?
For years, security watchers rightfully worried that quantum computers would break the encryption schemes used to protect our emails, personal records, and national security secrets, but this should be the least of our worries (indeed, the technology can make encryption harder to crack, too).
More significantly, quantum-powered AI-and by extension, future weapons systems-will get exponentially more intelligent and lethal for every qubit added to a military’s digital arsenal.
Warfare has long been viewed in terms of an adversary’s “qualitative” or “quantitative military edge” (QME)-i.e. the military strength one country has over another, whether it be the number of tanks they possess or how fast their fighter jets soar. It’s time to plan for the “qubit military advantage” (QMA), or the marginal additional processing power one armed force has over another.
Think of it this way: on the battlefield, whichever side has QMA-the computer with the most qubits-could have a decisive edge. The digitally stronger force could launch drones capable of out-swarming their rivals, or execute virtual attacks that outsmart and overwhelm the opposing side’s cyber defenses.
In darker terms, counting qubits may translate into casualty counts, a future for which we are unprepared. One day soon, QMA might hang over international negotiations and conflicts as a factor to be taken seriously in deciding how to resolve foreign policy differences.
At present, the United States has a slim lead and a growing quantum industry, but competitor nations are throwing money at the problem to catch up. Rival countries such as China and Russia are developing high-functioning quantum computers as we speak.
Meanwhile, most U.S. federal agencies are doing little to explore quantum opportunities and threats, while senior policy makers often have only a vague understanding of the technology. Government research in the quantum space has focused mostly on basic science and theoretical questions, rather than galvanizing private industry to find near-term applications.
This is a moment where legislative actions and federal investment could make all the difference, just as it did during the space race. The quantum industry is not yet profitable, which means an economic downturn could cause the fragile sector to slow down or fold, allowing state-funded rivals to leap forward.
We cannot afford to fall behind in a “quantum winter,” which is why the U.S. government must consider additional ways to support the field. In 2018, Congress created the National Quantum Initiative (NQI), an important starting point for U.S. efforts in the field, which included greater coordination among federal stakeholders.
But the NQI came nowhere close to cultivating the robust quantum ecosystem America needs, with agencies overly focused on solving theoretical and deep-science challenges, rather than rapidly developing and commercializing the technology’s real-world potential.
In the near term, the current administration should consider competitions for companies to solve existing and anticipated defense challenges with quantum machines, as the Australian Department of Defense recently did by seeking the industry’s help on resupplying bases with autonomous vehicles, a problem that demands immense computing power.
In the medium term, Congress should consider proposals that would expand investment in the technology, including through programs designed to give federal agencies access to scarce quantum computing resources.
Indeed, the broader national security community cannot plan for a new age of hyper computing if it lacks access to the technology. Expanding access also has the added benefit of galvanizing greater competition in the industry and, as a result, faster innovation.
And in the long term, we must focus on ramping up education in the quantum information sciences so that America’s workforce is primed for a new digital age.
Make no mistake: the quantum future is coming and will remake society as we know it.
Meanwhile, the United States must be more clear-eyed about staying in the lead because U.S. military strength-and American lives-could depend on it.
Miles Taylor is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security and worked previously as the head of advanced technology and security strategy at Google.
Content may have been edited for style and clarity.