The Quantum Man and the Sea of Risks

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” This mindset from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, should also be considered by policymakers in preparing for the potential disruptive effects of quantum-based technology to information and communications technology. Thinking of what the international community “can do with what there is,” NATO released its first-ever quantum strategy last month. During the NATO press briefing, officials announced that the alliance would create a Transatlantic Quantum Community forum to better engage with stakeholders from across government, industry, and academia.

Also focused on building multilateral partnerships around quantum, the government of Switzerland and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator will unveil the Open Quantum Institute at CERN next month. The institute is envisioned to help states develop an agreed normative framework for quantum computers, which are advanced computational machines that use information storage units called quantum bits¾qubits¾and can solve complex mathematical problems exponentially faster than conventional computers. This three-year initiative will formally become part of CERN’s global outreach program with the Quantum Technology Initiative (QTI). Beginning on March 1, 2024, the Open Quantum Institute will operate as CERN’s de facto “societal arm” to convene a global diplomatic dialogue on quantum computing and support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The institute’s leadership is already coordinating with 130 partners to explore governance approaches quantum technology; noting that there is an equally “strong need for international cooperation in order to preserve human agency, accelerate our progress towards the SDGs, and ensure that the whole world contributes to and benefits from quantum computing.” Multilateral governance frameworks for quantum computers could act as a means for states to protect their sovereign authority in technological environments that transcend physical boundaries—digital sovereignty. A growing number of states, as well as organizations like NATO and the United Nations, are concerned about the security risks of quantum computers.

Security Risks to Vulnerable Cryptographic Systems

When society reaches the technological milestone of an all-purpose, commercial-scale quantum computer, it will signify a new era of computation in advancing discoveries in the sciences and cryptography. Quantum computers could undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure and jeopardize secure communications—including military and intelligence data—the Biden administration’s National Security Memorandum warns on mitigating these risks to vulnerable cryptographic systems.

Cryptography is the art and science of encoding information. Post-quantum cryptography (PQC) refers to when quantum computers advance to a certain size and sophistication that they could break the modern asymmetric cryptography protocols and digital signatures that secure digital communications and financial transactions. According to theoretical physicist John Preskill, this is an era of “Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum,” meaning that society is working toward developing all-purpose quantum computers, that are also to scale. However, to scale up quantum computers so that they can solve complex problems, researchers need to advance quantum hardware and software capacities to support larger numbers of qubits for longer periods of time. IBM is currently developing a 1,386-qubit multichip processor, dubbed “Kookaburra,” which could be released in 2025. The number of qubits is significant because each additional qubit exponentially increases the processor’s potential computing power, which has implications on codebreaking. Although it is uncertain when commercial-scale quantum computers will be developed, cryptographers are worried about the immediate data harvesting risks to modern computers.

Global Quantum Innovation Race

Increasingly, states are regarding quantum computers as an imperative for gaining a competitive edge in industry and security. According to its 2023 Quantum Technologies Action Concept. Germany aspires to lead the global quantum innovation race. This document sets forth Germany’s strategic framework and plan to invest €3 billion to develop a universal quantum computer by 2026. Canada also envisions taking center stage based on its 2023 National Quantum Strategy, having allocated $360 million toward advancing quantum research, innovation, and commercialization. In 2023, the Australian government published a National Quantum Strategy and pledged $1 billion toward accelerating quantum innovation. China, by some estimates, is investing $15 billion in quantum technology, and according to a 2023 CSIS report, potentially outspending the rest of the world’s investments combined. In contrast with this figure, the European Union is planning to invest €6.8 billion ($7.2 billion) in quantum computing projects by 2025. In addition, the European Joint Commission on High-Performance Computing is investing approximately $100 million in constructing six sites for European quantum computers in Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and Poland. By the end of 2027, states and private industry will likely have invested over $16 billion in quantum computing.

Promoting Global Cyber Norms for Quantum-Based Technology

To elevate awareness about these security risks, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) convened a multi-stakeholder dialogue in Geneva on November 30. During the proceedings, Marieke Hood, executive director with the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, described the Open Quantum Institute as a safe place for quantum computing to be leveraged to “tackle shared problems and mitigate the risks of creating a new digital divide.”

Because the institute will be housed at CERN, one of the world's largest and most respected centers for scientific research, the Open Quantum Institute is uniquely positioned to serve as a scientific convener to incubate discussion on how to apply quantum technologies towards advancing the UN SDGs. Working in partnership with the UN Member States of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) and UNIDIR, the Open Quantum Institute could help champion an implementation plan for sustained global engagement to address the digital divide and workforce development challenges in both quantum-leading and developing countries. This multilateral discussion on governance frameworks should also include capacity building and anticipating the educational and training needs for cultivating a quantum-ready workforce.

Through building cross-sector partnerships across government, industry, and academia, the Open Quantum Institute is aiming to become the convening global institution to better anticipate future workforce needs. As the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator’s 2023 report points out, “Policymakers will need concise, trusted, and actionable information to understand and anticipate the impact of quantum computing on their constituents. . . . policymakers may need more help in being able to distinguish scientific and economic facts from hype as the sector seeks to attract investors.” Thus, the institute encourages states to join and chart a course for exploring global capacity building in quantum computing. Capacity building, in conjunction with confidence building measures to promote trust, are essential for promoting stability in the global information and communications technology (ICT) environment. To that point, the UN OEWG’s 2021 report advises that additional discussion is needed amongst states to build capacity in the use of ICTs and deepen understandings of how international law applies. Reapplying Hemingway’s recommendation to prioritize what can be done now with what there is, now is the time to build multilateral partnerships to better navigate the sea of risks in defending against the malicious use of quantum technologies.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith, JD, is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., a visiting fellow with the Carnegie Council, and a Cyber Law and Policy Fellow with the Army Cyber Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not those of CSIS, the U.S. government, or Department of Defense.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program