How Government Tech Leaders Can Prepare for Quantum

By Bill Vass

Bill Vass is Vice President of Engineering at Amazon Web Services. He is former President and CEO of Liquid Robotics, Inc. and former President and COO of Sun Microsystems Federal, an independent subsidiary of Sun Microsystems. Vass served as CIO at Sun. He also worked for the Secretary of Defense in the Office of the CIO. His organization managed networks, servers and applications across the Pentagon’s defense networks.

SPONSORED — Across the public and private sector, the pace of investment and scientific advancement in quantum technologies is ever increasing with major initiatives in computing, networking, cryptography, sensing, and more. While we are still embracing the advantages and challenges of the digital world, we must start preparing for the quantum era.

There are early signals that quantum technologies have the potential to impact areas such as energy storage, chemical engineering, material science, drug discovery, process optimization, and machine learning. While we don’t know when quantum technologies will become broadly useful, many hope these advances will ultimately help the world reduce its dependence on non-renewable energy, improve electricity storage, and many other important advancements for humanity.

Beyond the many anticipated benefits, quantum technologies also raise security concerns as they hold the potential to break asymmetric public key encryption schemes like RSA, which is a risk the National Security Agency (NSA) highlighted when they released the Commercial National Security Algorithm Suite 2.0 in September 2022.  Consequently, there is significant global investment in research focused on the advancement of post-quantum cryptography to help protect against these future threats.

Governments around the world are seeding multi-billion-dollar investment vehicles and setting policy agendas designed to accelerate the pace of quantum innovation, such as the AUKUS agreement and the UK standing up the National Quantum Computing Center (NQCC).

In the U.S., the May 2022 Biden-Harris Presidential Directives on Quantum have provided impetus to federal CIOs, and recently the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) began mapping the transition to post-quantum encryption. To address this, a new round of NIST standards were published in July 2022, ushering in a new government policy environment for our customers. Notably, NIST selected CRYSTALS-Kyber for general encryption, which AWS built into KMS as early as 2020.

In networking, the U.S. followed what many other countries have already done in starting a quantum network test bed with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Observatory, NIST, the National Security Agency, and NASA.

In anticipation of the quantum era, private sector and government CISOs and their staffs (security architects, PKI offices) alike, now face the challenge of migrating to zero trust and post-quantum readiness. This starts by mapping a transition to post-quantum encryption today, revising data strategies, encryption standards, and more.

How Innovative Enterprises are Taking Action
Enterprise executives have demonstrated to us that they see the potential of quantum as a disruptive technology.  However, they face the combined challenges of whether and how to prioritize investments in quantum. We have consistently heard a recurring question — “When will quantum computing reach its true potential?” It’s a difficult question to answer because there are still fundamental scientific and engineering problems to be solved. They want to know if – and when – they should focus on quantum computing.

In Gartner’s budgeting model of run-grow-transform, quantum belongs in the “transform” category, and many technology executives must judge how to invest in transformational technologies while sustaining operations and dealing with a backlog of technical debt.

Register for The Cyber Initiatives Group Virtual Winter Summit on December 13 to stay ahead of what’s coming in cyber.  Registration is free for this master class in public-private collaboration on cyber issues.  Register today

Looking across the federal and commercial enterprise technology landscape, several patterns are beginning to emerge.

First, interest in quantum is starting at the top, and agency leaders are asking their technology managers what quantum can do for their enterprise. This shows the impact that transformational leadership can have in connecting emerging technologies with mission requirements and thus accelerating technology adoption. Quantum innovators are able to respond with their plan for experimenting with quantum technologies to find mission advantage.

Second, quantum innovators are appointing pilot teams for key lines of effort related to quantum, and often this includes a cross-agency lead to synchronize quantum efforts. Setting this in the macro trend, a 2022 EY survey sponsored by UKRI found that most enterprises are planning to soon develop strategies for quantum in their enterprises, and 71% of respondents anticipate having an executive appointed to lead quantum computing efforts within the next 1-2 years. Having an executive leader demonstrates a public mandate for the enterprise, champions experimentation, and invests in the enterprise services and workforce of the future that will sustain momentum for the long term.

Third, quantum innovators are connecting investment mechanisms with future architecture requirements. In practice, this entails ring-fencing resources that are dedicated to funding and running experiments in quantum computing, machine learning, sensing, networking, security, and more. It also includes focused experiments on key parts of the enterprise architecture. For example, a chief security architect may be tasked with developing a migration roadmap to post-quantum encryption, including testing and conducting studies of the new NIST standards.

Finally, and related to the last point, quantum innovators are inspiring experimentation across their agencies by providing enterprise resources like cloud-accessed quantum computing, training and enablement, and use cases. Experimentation strategies may also include instructor led trainings, immersion days, and hackathons that inspire quantum-curious data scientists and developers across the enterprise to start their own experiments.

In sum, the most innovative agencies in quantum are combining executive leadership with lines of effort that will inspire and foster transformative and sustainable adoption.

The Time for Action is Now
Through our interactions with federal technology executives, we have begun identifying concrete actions that help prepare workforces and enterprises for the quantum era. The quantum workforce will not develop organically. So, what can federal CIOs do today?

First, technology leaders must begin developing the quantum professional cadre throughout their enterprises. With other emerging technologies like AI/ML, technology advancements outpaced workforce development. With quantum, we have the benefit of foresight. Indeed, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has identified workforce development as a core initiative. Leaders in the field are encouraging their teams to upskill in quantum, including courses provided by leading universities and hands-on immersion days provided by cloud service providers. Technology leaders can leverage the terrific certificate programs being offered by leading universities in quantum while simultaneously encouraging experimentation with current quantum technologies, especially cloud-enabled quantum computing.

Secondly, security architects must take a two-track approach. First, they should accelerate the adoption of the latest encryption to maximize the safety of current data that may be compromised today and decrypted later. Secondly, they should experiment with post-quantum encryption techniques, software, and hardware as they prepare to upgrade their security architectures once NIST publishes its final standards. For example, Amazon Web Services provides post-quantum encryption standards natively through the console, allowing developers to see how application performance may be impacted by these new standards. These experiments should be specifically targeted toward helping security architects design new protocols and procedures for defending the enterprise.

Thirdly, there is no compression algorithm for experience. CIOs should provide experimental quantum computing platforms as an enterprise service through their cloud service providers. The right CSP will provide managed notebooks, training, standardized security, consistent pricing, and a smooth onboarding experience for data scientists and developers in the agency enterprise. For example, Amazon Web Services launched Amazon Braket as a generally available quantum computing service in 2020. Today, Braket allows customers to experiment with five different quantum hardware providers. By working through a cloud provider, CIOs save time and money by unifying on a common set of standards and only consuming as much quantum computing resources as they need.

Fourthly, while quantum computing is still developing, quantum networking is expected to have more near-term impacts and will be key to unlocking the full potential of quantum devices. For example, quantum entanglement has potential benefits for precise timing and secure communications between network nodes. One other possible application is enabling global communications protected by quantum key distribution (QKD) with privacy and security levels not achievable using conventional encryption techniques. Some of these technologies exist today and are ready for network architects to begin experimenting and designing how their future networks will operate.

Finally, focus on inspiring creativity throughout the organization. Once data scientists and developers have access to this technology, the potential for groundbreaking invention and innovation are endless. Identify five to 10 relevant and hard problems that developers could try out on a quantum computer. For example, create a sprint cycle around an optimization or traveling salesman problem to see if a quantum computer provides advantage for the organization.

While quantum computing is still far into the future, it’s important for federal leaders to start experimenting today. Nations around the world are investing today, and it’s critical for the U.S. to maintain its leading-edge pace of innovation.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief

Categorized as:Tech/CyberTagged with:

Related Articles