The industry of quantum computing has taken the world of information processing by storm.
Quantum computers represent a dramatic shift in processing methodology. While traditional computers operate on a binary system of 1’s and 0’s, quantum machines run on information bits called qubits, units of data that can take multiple forms at the same time, exponentially increasing the processing power of the device.
While the earliest research into quantum processing goes back to the 1960’s, it is only recently that actual quantum machines have become a reality. A year ago, the first commercially available quantum computer was produced by the Canada-based D-Wave. Other big industry names such as Intel and IBM are now also bringing their own quantum machines online. Researchers are now foretelling the imminent arrival of “quantum supremacy,” achieved when a quantum computer will be able to make calculations beyond the most advanced binary-based machines.
Quite obviously, the implications of this quantum revolution will be enormous for a variety of industries. One question many policymakers and world leaders are beginning to ask is: How will quantum computing affect the landscape of international conflict?
Understanding the changes that quantum computing could cause in the industry of armed conflict requires appreciating how this new model of data processing affects another area of emerging computer science: machine learning. Machine learning is a rapidly growing branch of the broader field of artificial intelligence (AI), which, in essence, seeks to teach machines to be autonomous.
The field is based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves the most efficient way to carry out any given task. By analyzing large bodies of data, the machine “learns” to identify the patterns that determine the “right” answer to any given question.
The downside of machine learning is that it takes time to teach a machine. A computer must sift through many examples, sometimes millions of them, to hone its decision making capability for any one problem. The effort required to train a machine of course exponentializes the more complex the problems are.
This is where quantum computers come in.
The sheer power of quantum processing promises a huge boost to the efficiency of machine learning. Quantum computing is meant to attack very large, unsorted data sets to uncover patterns or anomalies at extremely high speeds. Indeed, the crossover between quantum and machine learning has kicked off a whole new discipline in recent years. Putting two and two together, this means that a quantum-powered “smart” machine could be placed in a highly complex scenario and very quickly “learn” how to conduct itself and complete tasks. The longer the machine is in that situation and the more data it takes in, the more efficient it becomes.
The implications of all of this for defense could be enormous. Advancements in quantum computing would not increase the power of weapons, or the effectiveness of equipment or other military hardware. Rather this major increase in computing power would make the processes of attack and defense for weapons systems much more efficient and accurate. The tasks of identifying and eliminating threats can be fully automated and executed with astounding accuracy and speed.
There is already a clear body of evidence that America’s two biggest adversaries are well underway in creating these quantum-powered weapons. China has been investing heavily in quantum computing for defense, recruiting armies of researchers specializing in the field. China has reportedly already constructed a working quantum processor, and is currently seeking ways to merge them with weapons systems.
According to a recent assessment by researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University specializing in China’s military build-up, “the successful integration of quantum technology with China’s regular military forces could profoundly change the regional security balance, which is already moving towards Beijing’s favor.”
Russia’s machine learning defense research is also well underway. The country’s Foundation for Advanced Studies, in tandem with the Ministry of Education and Science recently launched a 750 million ruble project for developing a quantum computer to be used in military systems. Russian weapons manufacturers already have working prototypes of machine learning-based weapons.
What will the consequences be of this increase in quantum arsenals?
For one, the growing importance of quantum computing will further reinforce the centrality of cyber in U.S. defense. From the elevation of Cybercom to a unified command to the implementation of tactical “cyber protection teams,” or CPTs, within the military, data processing and the threats to computing systems have become a primary focus of the American defense apparatus.
For instance, several quantum research projects have already been taken on by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the Defense Department wing responsible for the development of emerging technologies for the military.
As an eventual consequence of this, there is a high likelihood that weaponized quantum processors will appear within the U.S. military in the near future. American contractors from Lockheed Martin to Raytheon have already begun investing in the field of quantum development. These reports seem to confirm the predictions of many analysts over the past year that the U.S. defense industry will trigger a spike in quantum research and development.
The “quantum arms race” is now a reality. The moral ambivalence associated with automated smart weapons may mitigate this trend, at least in Western nations. In the long run, however, it can be safely asserted that quantum will continue to become a dominant force in the development of U.S. strategy, and quite possibly the very nature of global conflict.