BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
In my forthcoming book on national security space policy, I dedicate an entire section into burgeoning technologies and how they play into space development, both in the civilian and military fields. Last September, I gave a speech to a group of VIP’s at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. on this issue. Bottom line: we live in the Information Age. The country and corporations that come to spearhead innovative research in technology will be dominant. And, despite what you may think, the United States is getting its clocked cleaned by foreign states such as China.
By the 1970’s, the computer had taken hold in the minds of great, aspiring innovators. And within 20 years, these innovators had fundamentally transformed the world that we live in. Looking at the world then, we seemed to be ruled by Moore’s Law. Back in 1965, Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore, found that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits (computer chips) had doubled each year since they were created. Using this observation as a baseline, Moore extrapolated that this trend of doubling would persist into the foreseeable future. Track the evolution in technology from 1965 until 2017 and one can see that Moore was spot on.
Yet, popular modern thinkers, such as Dr. Michio Kaku have assessed that there is a limit even to Moore’s law. Indeed, Dr. Kaku believes that we may be fast approaching the moment when Moore’s Law no longer holds true. We will have fully developed technology based on the computer chip as we understand it. Dr. Kaku has proffered a vital caveat: he believes that through the creation of quantum computing we might be able to stave off the coming contraction from when we reach the limits of Moore’s Law.
IBM and several other companies have been spearheading research into quantum computing. What they have found has been promising. But, the technology is still in its infancy. The market is not yet there, so the R&D period will take time until the market matures and is ripe for the picking. This is a sound business practice. Unfortunately for America, however, the next leap in quantum technology will not come from one of its companies. In fact, the next revolution, the next “great leap forward,” if you will, is likely to come from one of America’s biggest rivals on the world stage today: China.
You see, last fall the Chinese placed their quantum internet satellite into orbit. To make a long story short, the Chinese have been investing for over a decade into burgeoning new technologies that they believe will have strategic capabilities. In this case, as I noted in my recent talk at IWP, China is trying to spearhead the quantum computing revolution. It is believed that the quantum internet will allow massive stores of data to be transmitted in a nearly un-hackable manner. Though, to be sure, Western scientists have assured policymakers that if China embraced their quantum internet as an alternative to the current U.S.-created internet, the transmissions could be hacked. But, as you are about to understand, the hacking will be unlike anything that we understand today.
Quantum computing is based off of quantum theory, which deals with the nature and behavior of energy and matter at the subatomic and atomic (quantum) level. This area of research was first postulated by Max Planck in 1900. Specifically, the quantum internet relies on what’s known as “quantum entanglement.” None other than Albert Einstein observed quantum entanglement in action. He referred to it as “spooky action at a distance.” Associate Professor Andrea Morello University of New South Wales, Australia’s School of Engineering has the simplest definition of quantum entanglement:
“Quantum entanglement suggests that acting on a particle here, can instantly influence a particle far away. This is often described as theoretical teleportation. It has huge implications for quantum mechanics, quantum communication and quantum computing.”
China’s quantum internet could revolutionize global communications in the same way that the internet did 30 years ago. And, in much the same fashion that the internet gave the U.S. a strategic advantage these last 30 years, the quantum internet could give China a significant strategic advantage. Think about it: by becoming the hub of the new internet, China will sit atop the new global communications network. Such a network will be unlike anything conceived thus far. Plus, its difficulty to hack will make it attractive to many states (not just America’s adversaries, but also friends, such as Germany, who are offended by American hacking). While many experts believe that they could hack quantum communications, they assert that the best they could do would be to destroy the information rather than steal it.
What’s made modern hacking so lucrative for hackers is that they can actually gather data from their targets. They can steal information from the hack. Unfortunately, quantum communications could only be disrupted by hacking. So, if the Chinese were sending top secret war plans for retaking Taiwan over the quantum internet, it is unlikely that American intelligence could steal those plans through hacking. The best that they could do would be to destroy information through hacking before it could be received.
The Chinese are convinced that this is going to give them a qualitative edge in their long-standing competition with the United States. While many American and Western businesses and scientists have expressed skepticism over the efficacy of this technology (they think it’s still too early to be of any use to most people yet), the Chinese are banking on being the pioneers of this new form of communication. In order for the Chinese quantum internet to work, the Chinese have had to develop an entire network of quantum receptors capable of relaying and deciphering quantum communications. They’ve made the first significant investment. China is dedicated to building out this technology.
Whatever happens with the Chinese quantum internet, the fact remains that the Chinese have gained immeasurable knowledge in quantum technology. They are developing an entire ecosystem predicated on their discoveries in quantum theory. Look back at every game changing innovation in the past: it stemmed from something else that came before it. Furthermore, it inspired a litany of other innovations, loosely related to that initial innovation, and all of those advances piled upon one another, pushing humanity (and the countries and corporations that spearheaded those dynamic changes) to international dominance.
As Gary Shapiro pointed out, KPMG’s global Tech Innovation Survey 2012 found that:
“43 percent of respondents said Silicon Valley’s crown would be passed elsewhere by 2016. China was named as the country most likely to be the next innovation center (45%) [that’s a plurality, by the way].” Read more here.
Why is this, do you suppose? It’s because countries like China have led the way in investing in educational policies that are instrumental in creating new frontier technologies like the quantum internet. The United States, on the other hand, has not. It has been riding on previous investments and innovations and has allowed itself to fall behind. China’s policies of sending their best-and-brightest to be trained overseas, like in the U.S., and then trying to woo those recent graduates back home, have paid back significant returns, especially for the Chinese. This is made easier because America’s H1B visa system is broken.
The American H1B “high-tech” visas no longer perform that which they were meant to do: train and retain the next great innovator from abroad. Thus, we have no problem training a Chinese student in a high-tech field and then, we have no problem also preventing them from being allowed to remain here. On the flip side, of course, our businesses misuse that system as a means of getting cheaper labor and putting native-born Americans out-of-work.
Meanwhile, Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are forming strategic partnerships with Western businesses as a means of gaining access to methods, technology, and capital that can be used to beef up China’s indigenous (and growing) high-tech industry. As Shapiro points out:
“Hisense, a huge electronics company based in China, is working with MIT’s Media Lab – the first alliance between the MIT Media Lab and a Chinese company – on talent training and project cooperation regarding smart technology, artificial intelligence and human-computer dialogue.”
Of course, Shapiro comments that China’s protectionist policies makes it “hostile to foreign investment and business.” Yet, China has always been protectionist. The protectionist policies have not yet hindered China’s ascent. Indeed, what is quite likely going on is that they have soaked up as much Western capital and technology as possible from the 1990s onward, that they are now confidently pivoting to sucking up the high-tech human capital from the West, in much the same fashion that they acquired the manufacturing and capital bases from the West. Whether this is sustainable or not is another matter entirely. What is certain is that, for the next decade at least, China will continue to be a competitor, even as its economic growth (and fertility rates) continues to generally decline.
So, for instance, while the West wrings its hands over the efficacy of this novel technology, the Chinese are already researching things like quantum radar. Had they not made the initial–risky–investment into the quantum internet technology, they likely would have not figured out how quantum radar works. By the way, just to prove the strategic importance of this technology, the Chinese now believe that their nascent quantum radar can penetrate the F-35’s stealth protection.
Think about that: the Chinese have made significant up-front investments in a frontier technology. While it remains unknown whether or not the primary technology, quantum internet, will be worth the costs, because of China’s investment, they have managed to create parallel technology that most certainly can further their strategic interests. The F-35 was billed as America’s silver bullet in any future war. Yet, it has been an incredibly costly endeavor. There have been a litany of setbacks, as we’ve documented.
Even without the technical setbacks, the F-35 costs about $100 billion per plane. What’s more, it is no longer cutting edge. The stealthiness of the plane has already been called into question by America’s enemies, who have developed highly effective countermeasures (without quantum technology), such as Russia’s S-400 air defense batteries (which are now in the hands of the Chinese and Iranians). A quantum radar obliterates even that.
Also, the exorbitant costs of the F-35 has prompted a (if you can believe it) cash-strapped Pentagon to prioritize spending on the F-35 as opposed to other warplanes, such as the F-22. While the F-35 was built as a glorified bomber, it was designed to operate alongside the equally stealthy F-22, which was an air-to-air fighter. The F-22 program was cut in 2009 by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This means that the fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, will have a severe lack of protection from the fifth-generation F-22.
The Chinese are spearheading the real world application of quantum technology. They have the time, money, and resources to invest and wait for the technology to bear fruit. As America has proven over the decades, innovation is a time-consuming and organic process. Victory belongs to the group that is willing to flesh out the technology and apply it in creative ways. Make no mistake: success is not guaranteed, but, as the saying goes, “you can’t win the lottery if you don’t even play.” China is at least making the effort–a significant effort–to adapt innovative technology to furthering their strategic goals.
Don’t listen to the naysayers: we should be concerned about China’s commitments to quantum technology. America must come to innovate in ways that are directly applicable to America’s long-term national security. We’ve not done this very well lately. As a result, America is getting left behind. The old saw of choosing to either innovate or perish still holds true.
P.S. Oh, yeah, and we must innovate in a way that will disallow the Chinese and other foes from stealing those innovations. And, while I still believe that China is building a house of cards, that does not negate their threat to the U.S. over the next 10-15 years.