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

The systems we rely on, from getting paid and making payments, to operating the power and infrastructure systems that power our homes, cities and transportation, all rely on secure data communications. Knowing how to protect and defend these systems is crucial to the functioning of our world.

At the heart of these systems is our ability to understand math and deal with physics. Most are familiar with the Enigma machine used by Germany in 1940 to encode troop movement messages. The contributions of the Polish decoding teams, including the mathematicians Rejewski, Zyggalski and Rozycki, were fundamental 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 every day to direct enemy troops. The impact of these mathematicians on the war effort should not be underestimated.

The world has changed, but the enemies still exist and they use “information” to strengthen their power.

Our sense is that the hunting and misuse of information is completely pervasive, occurring far beyond all geographic boundaries, through our phones, in apps, our living room, as the forces attempt to persuade and to simultaneously undermine a kind of cyber trench warfare.

In the cybersphere, not all weapons are created equal. Today, there are technologies that are the subject of research that profoundly and unalterably modify the cyber domain. And as in 1940, there are competing interests. To give you an idea of ​​the scale of the investments made by these interests, Figure 1 below shows you the “state of play”.

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

What is quantum technology and why do I tie it so directly to military capability?

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

The properties of entanglement, superposition and quantum tunneling open up new practical applications in sensors, communications and computing – all have military applications.

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) to build quantum computers that offer tools to solve problems far beyond what is currently possible – including the potential for exponentially more powerful and complex cyber attacks and defenses.

Quantum use cases applicable to the military cyber domain exist today. Tomorrow, truly “nuclear” applications sought by various players include quantum internet, quantum radar, quantum inertial navigation and quantum underwater surveillance (imagine not being able to hide in any ocean, you can’t say that this technology is still imaginary, a significant risk for any nation considering investing AUD 100 billion in nuclear submarines).

The human element

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

This is not a commentary for the government or the military, it is a call to action for the industry. Like the nuclear revolution, the quantum revolution will cause 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 will be propelled along the path to higher goals. Your business.

Who wins?

Good question, and one that isn’t easy to answer – as it wasn’t in 1942. The various players unfortunately don’t update us on their various milestone achievements on Twitter. The best we have are “in the battlespace” examples. Hints of new weapons, new defenses, terrifyingly fast calculation speeds. Examples are described in Microsoft’s Hybrid War in Ukraine report[2] where their Threat Intelligence Center responded to 6 Russian-aligned actors who launched 237 attacks before the invasion. The scale and speed of operations targeting public and private infrastructure are radically different in 2022.

The amount of national investment is a good indicator of success. When the United States committed 130,000 people to the nuclear task, they took the lead. In 2022, the biggest investor is China. Conservatively, they invest as much as the rest of the world combined. It is possible that the innovation agenda as well as the political and economic environments in other geographies allow for a different rate of innovation.

Since we are here, what should we do?

Aimed at the professional audience, the call to action should focus on your knowledge base and collaborators. Quantum is no longer an interesting laboratory experiment, in the same way that cyber warfare is not just something that nation states inflict on each other. Your business is on the front line, and your employees must be trained, a cyber culture developed, to augment and support the system changes that you and your suppliers will deploy. Only then can you begin to prepare for this quantum future.

And for government, aggregating investments across nations — adding up rather than duplicating — must be the key task. In 1941 it was the UK in crypto and the US in nuclear that did the heavy lifting, but in 2022 it will be joint and coordinated investment that will make the difference. As we have seen working successfully in the context of Ukraine, a united front of action across government, business and the community can be a game-changer.

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

Scientia potests is attributed to Francis Bacon in 1597

[1] Nature 561, 307-308 (2018) doi:

Donald E. Patel