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Quantum computing could lead to advances — but also national security threats

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. national security officials are busy with everything from Russia's war in Ukraine to China's pervasive surveillance state. They also have to worry about threats that technically don't even exist yet, things like quantum computers. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin has our story.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Quantum computing might sound a lot like fantasy. Listen to this ad for the new Marvel Ant-Man movie "Quantumania."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA")

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Janet Van Dyne) Wait. Wait a minute. You're sending a signal down to the quantum realm. Turn it off now.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's not exactly reality. But quantum is starting to become a real industry, and quantum computers could one day do amazing things, like help develop lifesaving drugs or turbocharge artificial intelligence.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm not sure I understand.

MCLAUGHLIN: But experts worry it's already a threat, specifically to encryption, the digital shell protecting many top secrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Nation-state adversaries are harvesting data today, ready to decrypt in tomorrow's quantum-powered world.

MCLAUGHLIN: I recently heard that ad at a conference in New York City all about how quantum computing relates to cybersecurity. But before we panic, why don't we try to get to the bottom of what quantum computing actually is?

ROBERT SUTOR: Literally, the biggest computer is nature itself.

MCLAUGHLIN: Robert Sutor works for the startup ColdQuanta after spending decades at IBM. I thought Robert had the most elegant way of explaining how quantum computers are different from the one on your desk.

SUTOR: It's every single electron, every single atom, every single photon of light. Somehow, nature marshals all this and performs extraordinary calculations to make all these processes actually work.

MCLAUGHLIN: So instead of ones and zeros, a quantum computer makes use of properties of nature to exist in multiple states at once, for example, in order to solve really complex problems. But to actually harness the computing power of those atoms, you've got to be able to control them and connect them. That's one of the tricky parts. Today's quantum computers are basically small collections of these tiny units called qubits. You can try to picture them like this.

ARASH FEREIDOUNI: If you're looking for them, they're more of a - lasers passing through a bunch of mirrors.

MCLAUGHLIN: Get that? Real simple stuff. That's Arash Fereidouni from Zurich Instruments, talking on the sidelines of the quantum conference. Most of this sounds and still is highly experimental. The biggest quantum computers still don't have nearly enough qubits to break encryption. Even so, intelligence and national security experts worry it's coming.

LAURA THOMAS: So at CIA, I was a case officer, and I ran some of our programs overseas. And it was very important for me to understand the technology landscape.

MCLAUGHLIN: Laura Thomas is also with ColdQuanta. At the CIA, she says she became so concerned about the threat of quantum computing, she decided to leave. The government has had its challenges keeping up with the pace of technology. She said she wanted the chance to be on the cutting edge in the private sector.

THOMAS: And I went down a very long rabbit hole. I talked to a lot of people. And ultimately, what I discovered beyond the headlines - and certainly, there's a fair amount of hype in the industry as well - but still, I discovered that I think this is coming at us much faster than we realize.

MCLAUGHLIN: At its simplest, encryption is just a really hard math problem. If you don't have a key, you can't solve it, even with a supercomputer. It would take forever, literally. And I do mean literally. But a quantum computer could figure it out. In fact, a smart guy named Peter Shor actually wrote an algorithm proving it's possible decades ago.

DUSTIN MOODY: It kind of spawned a new field. So academic researchers have been looking at this since the 1990s.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's Dustin Moody. As a cryptographer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he's one of the people leading efforts to revolutionize encryption. For the last five years or so, he's been working to solicit new algorithms from some of the best and brightest. And they're hopeful. They've got some promising leads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Quantum computing has the potential to transform everything, from how we create new medicines to how we power artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

MCLAUGHLIN: Meanwhile, the Biden White House has made quantum a priority. The president recently toured an IBM facility in New York. It included a photo-op with a quantum computer. Biden's focus was mostly on jobs. But Moody tells me the administration is also focused on the urgency of the threat. It's committed to transitioning the federal government to new forms of encryption as soon as possible. For some in the national security community, changes can't come soon enough.

ANN COX: If you're dealing with secret information that you've picked up from a person in another country, you may need to protect that for the lifetime of that person. You're talking 25, 50, 75 years.

MCLAUGHLIN: Dr. Ann Cox is in charge of quantum at the Department of Homeland Security. She understands the urgency. She says people's lives are at stake but also their most sensitive data, from email to health care information. But she also finds a kind of joy in hunting down a threat that technically doesn't even exist.

COX: Magic is just science we don't understand yet.

MCLAUGHLIN: For now, quantum science still sounds pretty magical.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.