Updated: Oct 30, 2022
New Delhi must focus on what might steal the century from India.
In a faithful October of 2019, physicists at Google LLC ran a quantum algorithm through a 53-qubit quantum machine called Sycamore, claiming to have successfully closed a calculation in 200 seconds that could have taken 10,000 years for the world's fastest conventional supercomputer (the IBM Summit at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to execute. The tech behemoth had achieved ‘quantum supremacy,’ sending organizations, governments and academia across the world on a scramble for R&D in quantum computing.
Image Credits: TechStory
How Quantum Computing Works
What differentiates quantum computers from conventional ones is the capacity to process calculations. Conventional computers process 'bits' of data, where each bit can hold either a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers, however, draw on a peculiar feature of quantum mechanics. They process quantum bits, or 'qubits' of data, which can store a combination of 1 and 0. Borrowing from Cade Metz's analogy, this implication is comparable to how tossing a coin holds out the intriguing plausibility that it could yield either heads or tails when it finally falls flat. This implies that two qubits can contain four values simultaneously, three qubits can contain eight, four qubits can contain 16, and so on. Every increase in the number of qubits in a computer makes it exponentially more powerful.
Researchers believe that the capability of quantum computing to swiftly solve complex processing problems can support the alleviation of comprehensive national security problems, such as logistics, wargaming and military simulation, rapid up the creation of new medicines and power up the foray into new frontiers in technology and artificial intelligence, facilitating novel scientific discoveries. But, such a potent 'quantum leap' comes with challenges to how the world is run. We turn to these in this article.
Current Encryption Regime
Presently, every piece of digital information and data infrastructure on both classified and unclassified networks operates atop a few classic cryptographic protocols. The most pervasive of these is Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA), a key protocol whose security is anchored in notions of computational intractability of key mathematical problems, such as large prime number factorization. RSA is an asymmetric protocol which works through dissimilar keys for encryption and decryption. It deploys a public-key which is, well, public, allowing people and systems to send encrypted messages which can only be decrypted by a recipient having a secret private key. RSA is considered secure because the public key is constituted by a giant number (i.e., two to the power of 2048) and the private key is based on its prime factors. It would take 300 trillion years for our classic desktops to crack the 2048-bit RSA.
The Great Quantum Threat
This is where time turns the tide. In 1994, Peter Shor developed a quantum algorithm for which, theoretically, tearing through the RSA and creating the private key by running prime factorization on the public key is a few hours’ game, turning the RSA's USP that it is extremely exhausting to guess the private key from the public key, on its head. It was not taken seriously then. Of late, Google LLC's announcement of quantum supremacy has focused attention on the Great Quantum Threat to civil societies, corporates and governments across the world. Two corollaries have also been driving this attention: firstly, any actor with money can foray into quantum computing and, secondly, any technology cannot be contained or protected from committed chasers, as evidenced in India’s nuclear tests or, more importantly, a Chinese physicist’ September 2020 claim to having developed a quantum computer a million times faster than Google’s Sycamore.
The associated risk is that Shor's algorithm could potentially be executed on quantum computers to mount successful cryptanalytic attacks on public key infrastructure (PKI), which interweaves the internet, undergirds secure communications as well as digital authentication and underwrites the entirety of cyberspace powering the 21st century, from military communications, intellectual property, financial transactions and individual privacy. Any intelligence adversary with a quantum machine of concomitant capacity can exploit vulnerable cryptography in all networks and applications, setting up an 'exploitation cascade,' as it were. For example, military cyber infrastructure in all physical environments, be it air, sea or land, is built upon much of the same technologies and networks that sustain the global economy; a systematic vulnerability in the cyber domain could then potentially translate to a systematic vulnerability in all domains.
Balance of Power and Window of Vulnerability
Acquisition of a capability to wreck RSA would lace an intelligence adversary with an envious offensive advantage. But the promise of quantum information science offers the potential to develop defensive countermeasures. The competition between offensive and defensive deployments of technology is as ancient as war itself. Nevertheless, it is also true in principle that failure to develop net offsets in time would leave open a 'window of vulnerability' to quantum attacks. Indeed, in International Relations, adversaries and bad actors have an impulse to exploit open 'windows.' An adversary with an unknown or uncontested offensive quantum cryptanalysis capability would be, as realist theory (having had conclusively proved itself through most of recorded history), drawn to, mouth drooling, deploy for intelligence advantages, which could then appear as military and economic advances. However, despite the breakthroughs in quantum computing, its ability to penetrate the RSA is still not quite there. The window of vulnerability to quantum computing has not (probably) opened yet. But trends in innovation show that it is increasingly becoming a possibility.
Policymakers must recognize the enormity of the uniqueness the Great Quantum Threat poses to comprehensive national security: unlike other minor and major cyber vulnerabilities, meager intuition or knowledge of potential quantum exploits is not enough for mitigation. There is no easy patch possible since a fundamental break from RSA and similar protocols is needed, because the most insurmountable advantage of RSA is purportedly the unusually large computing power required to crack the private key, and quantum computing promises to deliver just that. We need new cryptosystems. The quantum challenge shall be decisive; it categorically threatens an entire class of technology as against only some specific segments, something that cybersecurity professionals call a 'class break.' Shor's algorithm concerns the most destructive class break conceivable in the 21st century. When, not if, quantum computing makes Shor’s algorithm executable, it will pull the ground from beneath much of the conventional cryptographic cyberspace architecture.
Despite having grappled with playing catch-up in science historically, China has been the first to successfully throw several darts on the quantum computing board. The CPC has accorded urgency to quantum technology, listing it as one of the top five high-tech areas to be focused on for 'strategic national science and technology projects' in the 14th Five-Year Development Plan. It mandates increasing R&D expenditure on quantum technology by 7 percent each year from 2021 to 2025. As per Hudson Institute, joined by Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035, the plan lays out a clear blueprint for Chinese domination of science and technology in the 21st century. No QUAD country has such a blueprint as of yet. The CPC has already commissioned the construction of the world's largest quantum laboratory, a $10 billion investment.
China in 2016 installed the first satellite Micius for quantum information science, inching closer to realizing unhackable global communications. It is also the world's first large-scale integrated quantum internet between Beijing and Shanghai, deemed unhackable and thus the future of secure information communications, power grids, interbank transfers, and other key sectors. Chinese strategists are boasting about "quantum hegemony" and policymakers must take note. However, there is one caveat: China has advanced in quantum communications rather than computation, where the U.S. is leading. The former benefits defense (post-quantum cryptography) whereas the latter offers offensive (cryptanalysis) capabilities.
Demonstrated credibility of apprehensions that China and like adversaries might realize a great intelligence advantage has already propelled substantial effort at prevention. The political balancing playbook is of late rhyming to balancing in science. Because of U.S. tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and IBM, it retains a strong lead in quantum computing and quantum-computing patents and is home to 78 quantum computing startups. The U.S. also leads in quantum computing private equity, with 110 deals inked from 2016 through 2021, versus China's 30. The U.S. Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018, establishing a national quantum computing strategy, earmarking $1.2 billion for R&D and creating a framework for intra-governmental research coordination. The Department of Energy is deploying the $625 million earmarked funds to finance five quantum information research hubs comprising national labs, corporates and varsities.
Image Credits: IBM
The U.S. has also initiated 'quantum cooperation' with like-minded Japan, Australia and the UK. Despite choking polarization on policy issues, there is bipartisan approval for increased investments in quantum science. The 2018 National Defense Strategy lists quantum informatics as an important component for investment in 'the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations.' The reference is to arresting the quantum leapfrog of China. Emphasis has also been put on export controls, protection of intellectual property and defending 'national-security-relevant applications' under the National Science & Technology Council's National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science.
India and its Imperatives
The Union Government declared quantum technology a 'mission of national importance' in 2019. The 2020-21 Union Budget announced the $1.2 billion National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications (NMQTA) to promote dedicated R&D in quantum technology adoption over five years. The government is funding about 92 percent of the 100 quantum projects in India. At least 6 Indian startups are engaged in developing quantum-based cybersecurity solutions.
Unfortunately, the NMQTA is still lined up for approval, with no funds allocated even for FY 2022-23. Neither have private sector partners been identified nor has a comprehensive multi-stakeholder network been concretised. A quantum technology ecosystem requires integrated R&D efforts across multiple domains ranging from quantum computing, communications, storage and hardware development. India urgently requires a long-term definitive action plan and metrics to measure outcomes of its quantum missions to be able to integrate research and build a common platform for quantum R&D. As the Observer Research Foundation underscores, India also needs to strengthen its quantum-compatible hardware manufacturing. Most of the required hardware for developing a quantum computer, such as superconducting materials, physical qubits, chips and processors, et cetera., is imported by India, although a few startups have begun developing these essential components.
India cannot afford a deficient policy architecture for quantum technology, given the fact that adversaries, once having crossed the quantum computing threshold required for exploitation of cryptographic vulnerabilities, will be tempted to do just that. The strategic gains a country might derive from sneakily acquiring scalable quantum supremacy, hiding it for several years, and exploiting meanwhile its adversary's vulnerabilities: ranging from state secrets, military infrastructure and civilian data—with the adversary not knowing in time—will be immense. China's state-sponsored cyber espionage campaigns, its targeting of critical Indian power infrastructure and alleged blackout of Mumbai must serve as living repositories of caution for the Government in India.
Conclusion and Recommendation
We have underlined where India stands in the 21st century long game for quantum supremacy vis-a-vis China and the United States. Offsets to Shor's algorithm exist, and, if installed soon, India can pre-empt the Great Quantum Threat. Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC) uses mathematical problems which are tough for both classical and quantum computers to crack (PQC is not vulnerable to Shor's argument). PQC can be fed into conventional networks and can render security against both conventional and quantum attacks. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology has initiated the process to develop and standardize PKIs capable of guarding sensitive government information '‘well into the foreseeable future, including after the advent of quantum computers.' In an ideal scenario, new PQC protocols could be simply swapped in for current cryptographic protocols to minimize the need to reengineer entire networks that rely on them.
That an adversary can develop and clandestinely deploy quantum technology against India and score a decisive intelligence advantage is a reason credible enough for mounting a substantial, sustained and coordinated effort at preemption through future-proofing of our digital infrastructure and investing in quantum informatics R&D. For policymakers to do nothing by halves today would put at risk whatever India has painstakingly gained and will gain in the run-up to the 21st century showdown.
BY ASISH SINGH
Asish Singh is a rising sophomore pursuing Political Science
and International Relations at Ashoka University.