Inside Quantum Technology’s Inside Scoop: Quantum Computing and the Military
With its unpredictable environments and multi-faceted real-time calculations, the military is an industry looking to leverage the benefits of quantum computing for successful endeavors; but it may not be the type of quantum computing many expect. “In quantum computing, I think you have a lot of people, physicists mostly, who think they already know what a quantum computer should be, and they think it should be exactly one kind of way,” explained Richard Murray, CEO of the UK-based quantum computing company ORCA Computing. “The truth is, it’s an incredibly exciting new technology that will be applied in many different forms. Looking at a computing system, which might include everything from FPGA to a sort of supercomputer, those are still both sorts of computers of various different elements. I think quantum computing will be the same.” To almost prove his point, Murray and his team at ORCA Computing recently sold a PT-1 model quantum computer to the UK’s Ministry of Defense. This model is the first type of quantum computer to be room-temperature and designed for on-site computing, allowing the technology to be more robust and versatile. In the U.S., IonQ signed a $13.4 million contract with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab (USAFRL) to provide quantum computing hardware and software for R&D. Similarly, SandboxAQ is working closely with the U.S. military to help deploy quantum technology in many different areas. With the unpredictable environments that the military encounters, having a more deployable quantum computer could streamline many projects.
The usual setup for a quantum computer has been described as a “cathedral,” due to its shape. With amplifiers, qubit arrays, isolators, and many other types of chambers, the machine is quite large and bulky, and will most likely only get bigger as companies work to scale up the number of qubits in their devices. This makes it difficult for these types of quantum computers to be deployed on-site, which is why Murray suggests that a different type of quantum computer will need to be created specifically for the military. “In defense, you have a lot of applications to computing, which are not like standard computing, they’re not in sort of controlled environments,” Murray stated. “And there are very good reasons why not. They might have to cope with many different parameters to function or compute in an incredibly adverse environment. For example, it might need to work in an incredibly radioactive environment. Those are the types of environments where a different type of computing platform might prove tremendous, which might be a world away from this world of high-performance computing that everyone imagines.” These constraints are the reason that Murray helped create the PT-1 model, which, as he puts it, can sit “in the back of a Land Rover.” Using photonic qubits, the PT-1 avoids the need for cold temperatures and is built on a more mobile system. As the Ministry of Defense uses the PT-1, they will no doubt develop custom programs for the device to run.
The Big Military Applications
Beyond the need for more deployable devices, the military has other significant areas that quantum technology that could make a difference. From encryption to stealth to new vehicle designs, the opportunities for quantum computing seem endless. While the use cases are still being researched and developed, current quantum computers are being used for optimization problems or are paired with machine learning. “At ORCA, the team spends a lot of our time on generative models using machine learning,” said Murray. He also postulates that more use cases will open up as the hardware advances to become fully error-corrected. One future use case Murray gives is creating room-temperature superconductors. “You might think, well how’s the room temperature superconductor going to be important for the military?” He said. “Well, energy storage, if you need to store large amounts of energy, you might do that with a room temperature superconductor.”
One obvious application is cryptography. “Quantum computers will be able to break encryption,” explained Jen Sovada, President of the Public Sector at SandboxAQ. “Many adversaries are performing store now, decrypt later attacks. Stealing data that is encrypted with the sole purpose to decrypt it once a quantum computer is available. This will make sensitive data accessible such as weapons system data, composition of materials, identities of personnel, and other information that the Military wants to keep protected.” As quantum computers are able to generate random numbers or factor prime numbers, both crucial to the encryption process, this could threaten the entire way encryption works. This has already been studied with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Breaking these encryptions can result in major consequences, especially for those in power. “As soon as someone has one or two of these computers, they’re able to access your encrypted data,” Murray explained. “That threat may apply to data that is being transmitted today. So even though the potential to break in and decrypt data way only appears 10 years into the future, you can then go back to that data in 10 years’ time when a quantum computer becomes available. All of the sudden, you can unlock those things, which 10 years ago, people were desperate to keep secret. So, the current thinking is, if you don’t want those things to be available in 10 years, you should start to think about the security protocols used today.” As all militaries deal with sensitive and confidential information, having strong encryption processes are key. Because only a handful of these quantum machines will get to that initial first stage, the inequality and vulnerability in privacy are creating a bit of a race between authority leaders over who has access to this technology.
Ironically, quantum computers may also be a solution to the encryption problem. As Sovada added, “On the positive side, Quantum computers will be able to increase compute power to solve complex problems. The Military has massive amounts of data that need to be evaluated to provide insights into supply chain needs, logistics (movement of materials), predictive maintenance, etc.”
Other applications are not as dire but are just as important. According to a 2021 paper, quantum gravimeters can be used by the military to aid in seismology, geophysics, underground scanning, and even in archeology or oil detection. As resources, specifically oil, get scarcer and scarcer, these quantum devices may play more of a central role in some military applications.
The fact that the military is looking into quantum technology is a benefit for the quantum industry. According to Murray, “Many of the military branches in the UK and the U.S. have startup-friendly arms. And many governments and defense agencies are putting a lot of effort into connecting with this startup community.” This minimizes many of the barriers that quantum companies would have to overcome to work with the military. However, there are other things to consider. “They are government-funded agencies,” Murray explained, “so they do take longer to turn things around. But there is a benefit because they have very long-term budgets, so they are not necessarily looking for what they can do in the next quarter like a company might.” This may make it easier for quantum computing companies looking for military partnerships early on.
Other experts within this industry believe that compared to other countries, the U.S. military could do more to invest in private partnerships with quantum companies. “The Department of Defense has a long history of supporting research in quantum technologies in the US from its very early days, due to its impact on secure communications, position/navigation/timing, and computational advantages,” explained IonQ Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Jungsang Kim. “While China and many European countries already have well-established publicly funded quantum initiatives, the U.S. government is starting to recognize the opportunity for public-private partnership due to its strength in the quantum industry. The cutting-edge quantum computing technology that IonQ possesses can enable DoD to tackle many challenging computational problems they face. Private-public partnerships will strengthen domestic quantum computing industry, and unlock unforeseen efficiencies for the deployment of U.S. defense technologies. AFRL is one such early adopter, and we anticipate that the industry will be able to provide impactful solutions to other areas of the DoD that warrants continued investment in the future.” Thanks to legislation like the CHIPS Act, the U.S. military is beginning to understand how private quantum companies may be able to benefit their projects in a doable timeline.
Like many experts in the quantum industry, Murray also has one eye on the timescale of when these devices may be more accessible. “I believe in the next two years, we will see quantum being applied for useful, highly niche applications which will include those in the defense and military circles,” Murray stated. “Now that is a highly controversial belief. I think in the next few years we will see a breakthrough, which I happen to think will be in the hybrid space.” Only around seven years from now does Murray believe that the switch from hybrid computers to fully quantum computers will happen, as time is needed to develop the technology. And when that switch happens, he postulates that smaller-styled quantum computers will be used by the military. “There is a really interesting need for computing systems that work on mobile platforms outside of the lab and away from these cathedral-sized structures,” he added. “So everything that takes an edge on classical computing also applies to quantum computing.” Other experts see the technology as already being deployed. “This technology is here today,” Sovada said. “The military could be using quantum technology and have it integrated in their systems immediately and need to know that availability of quantum computers is different from the availability of other aspects of quantum technology.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.