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A consistent theme of technocratic pursuit is that while it may crow loudly about widespread benefits to mankind, it is too often tied to more sinister motives.

With a new DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) call to work with mega tech companies to speed a “digital arms race” to quantum computing, the dynamic appears to be at work again.

In the wake of war between Russia and Ukraine, and continued rivalry between the U.S. and China, national leaders are framing quantum technology as crucial to military deterrence and use.

U.S. defense researchers recently moved to partner with the private sector to strategically explore building the world’s first practical quantum supercomputer.

Joe Altepeter, a program manager for DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office told corporate-government tech hub platform Nextgov this past week:

“There's a lot of hype in the commercial space and there's a lot of people claiming that they've figured out a path to a really big, really useful quantum computer. And we would like to listen—like, if somebody thinks that they cracked the secret code to make any quantum computer, then we would love for them to apply for this program. And we want to be really flexible in how we work with companies.”

Altepeter is heading a new Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing (US2QC) initiative. 

The project is seeking to produce a utility-scale functioning quantum computer faster than current timetables predict.

What Is Quantum Computing?

Quantum technology involves the ability to work with and manipulate so-called “quantum level systems” such as atoms, ions, electrons, photons, molecules and various quasiparticles. It’s the smallest measurable state currently known to science.

More specifically quantum technology has been defined as:

“an emerging field of physics and engineering based on quantum-mechanical properties—especially quantum entanglement, quantum superposition and quantum tunneling—applied to individual quantum systems, and their utilization for practical applications.”

The first quantum revolution was ushered in at the dawn of the 20th century, by scientists like Max Planck (who first determined a level of energy he termed “quanta”), Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisinger and others.

Theories and experiments eventually brought astounding new practical technologies, including semiconductors, modern communications technology, magnetic resonance imaging, lasers and digital cameras.

The first quantum revolution also resulted in nuclear weapons and energy, and laser weapons, which are fast maturing as a technology.   

The currently emerging “second quantum revolution” involves greater understanding and more precise manipulations of quantum level states.

Wide-ranging military applications will leverage quantum advances, according to “Quantum technology for military applications,” a research paper authored by Michal Krelina and published on the peer-reviewed open science research platform SpringerOpen.com:

“Quantum technology does not bring fundamentally new weapons or standalone military systems, but rather significantly enhances measurement capability, sensing, precision and computation power and efficiency of the current and future military technology.” 

Krelina, a Professor of Nuclear Sciences and Physical Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague, says much of this technology is characterized as “dual use”—that is, it is projected to have civilian and military utility.

“Particular military applications of quantum technology are described for various warfare domains (e.g. land, air, space, electronic, cyber and underwater warfare and ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance), and related issues and challenges are articulated.”

The following graphic gives an idea of just how much quantum technology may transform future battlefields:

Source: springeropen.com

A Quantum Race to Change the World Balance of Power    

What kinds of military applications will quantum technology transform and introduce?

Quantum computing, already noted as a top priority of DARPA, is not envisioned as replacing general purposes and usages of current technologies any time soon.

But where quantum computing could make its first major impacts is in the arena of solving very complex mathematical problems. To that end, within 20 years, a quantum computer will likely be able to crack the complex current cryptographic security.

And leading tech companies have quantum projects that are fast advancing quantum computing capabilities, Krelina notes:

“The anticipated timelines as imagined by the quantum computing roadmap by IBM and Google are the following: IBM plans a 433-qubit quantum processor in 2022 and 1121 qubits by 2023 [26]. Google has announced a plan to reach a quantum module of 10,000 qubits. All other quantum processors would consist of such modules up to 1 million qubits in 2029 [27]. Based on a survey among leaders in key relevant areas of quantum science and technology, it is likely that quantum computers will start to become powerful enough to pose a threat to most of the public key encryption schemes (for more details, see Sect. 3.2.2) in about two decades [28].” 

A quantum system could allow for intercepts of crucial information of an adversary.  Though not yet available, the promise of coming systems that can crack the most complex current cryptography is likely already leading military agencies to store encrypted intelligence of adversaries that can’t yet be cracked:

“An adversary or foreign intelligence could intercept and store encrypted traffic until the quantum cryptoanalysis becomes available. Because the time of declassification of many secrets is far beyond the expected timelines for powerful quantum computer delivery, such a threat can be considered genuine, nowadays.”

It’s easy to see how the first power to gain a quantum key to unlocking encrypted military info would gain a huge, immediate advantage.

Quantum Powered AI Still Limited

Over the last quarter century, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has gone from niche applications and research, to being woven into virtually every technological area. 

As one researcher observed:

“AI is currently deployed at multiple domains, it is forecasting revenue, guiding robots in the battlefield, driving cars, recommending policies to government officials, predicting pregnancies, and classifying customers. AI has multiple subareas such as machine learning, computer vision, knowledge-based systems, and many more…”

One of the current forecasted limits of quantum technology powered AI, involves the important area of machine learning. There are significant current limitations in the ability to transpose huge amounts of existent classical data into a quantum form that could fuel such learning.

But in the nearer term AI neural networks, or systems which are modeled on the way human brains work and process information, may benefit from quantum advances said Krelina:

“quantum-enhanced ML/AI can be introduced, where quantum computing can improve some machine learning tasks such as quantum sampling, linear algebra (where machine learning is about the processing of complex vectors in a high-dimensional linear space) or quantum neural networks [54]. One example is the quantum support vector machine [58].”

Other Military Quantum Technologies

In addition to quantum computing and crypto-analysis, and quantum powered AI, there are a host of other areas where quantum technology is expected to make transformative impacts.

Some of these include:

  • Quantum Communication Networks: such communication could offer ultra secure communication, via quantum-resilient cryptography
  • Quantum Sensing and Imaging: one of the most mature areas of quantum technology, quantum sensing and imaging has been used in global GPS systems and imaging systems since the 1970s. But new advances promise a level of precision and detail that qualify as revolutionary. For instance, Quantum navigation systems being developed by DARPA offer much greater resistance to jamming, and whole new levels of tracking precision for military assets and enemy combatant systems
  • Quantum ISTAR: ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance) will be improved via quantum technologies in processing and imaging; undersea and underground mapping are two areas that have been outland as especially benefitting. At the moment, “quantum sensing technologies—magnetometry, gravimetry and gravity gradiometry—can reach very high precision, at least in the laboratory,” according to Krelina. Eventually, technologies will also be applicable to space warfare, via satellite communications and tracking of objects in the earth’s atmosphere and beyond.
  • Quantum Underwater Warfare: Related to the above, quantum underwater warfare will introduce enhanced magnetic detection of submarines and underwater mines, enable more precise sonars, and other capabilities.
  • Quantum Electronic Warfare: Electronic Warfare (EW) will be disrupted by quantum technologies which can evade current systems designed to eavesdrop, image and even deliver direct energy weapons. Quantum systems will offer all those abilities on a level that current technology won’t be able to counter. 
  • Quantum Radar and Lidar: though still very much in its infancy, the prospect of long range, detailed surveillance via quantum radar has already been recognized as “a powerfully disruptive technology that could change the rules of modern warfare,” says Krelina. “Therefore, attention is being paid to this topic internationally, despite the immaturity of the technology, and the many doubts about whether the quantum radar could work as the standard primary surveillance radar.”
  • Chemical and Biological Simulations and Detection: abilities to detect chemical and biological weapons, and traditional weaponry including explosives, will be greatly enhanced via quantum technology. Specifically, air sampling and direct samples subjected to quantum analysis will allow much finer detection levels. But an even more game-changing use will be the ability, according to Krelina, to “design and precise simulation of structures and the chemical properties of new small- to medium-sized molecules that could play the role of chemical warfare agents similar to, for example, Cyanogen, Phosgene, Cyanogen chloride, Sarin or Yperit.” Quantum abilities could also spur advances in research “on protein folding, DNA and RNA exploration, such as motifs identification, Genome-wide association studies and De novo structure prediction [which] could impact the research on biological agents as well.” 
  • New Material Design: New materials including better camouflage, stealth (electromagnetic absorption), ultra-hard armor and high-temperature tolerance materials are all being worked on using quantum innovations and quickly advancing knowledge of quantum level particle / energy states
  • Brain Imaging and Human-Machine Interfacing: Quantum enabled real-time brain activity imaging will eventually lead to tightly integrated human–machine interfacing, including with machines and autonomous AI systems. Think of it as transhuman capability brought to soldiering, adding to other initiatives including robotics and even genetic enhancements that will all be part of a coming super soldier designs

Quantum Security or Quantum Carnage?

Concerning this research on military applications of quantum technology, Krelina is careful to note that obtaining specific info is naturally hard, given the classified nature of much of the research:

Krelina says “Quantum technology military applications described [here] are based on public-domain, state-of-the-art research supplemented by various reports and newspaper or magazine articles about defense applications.”

But even given those caveats, the recent DARPA call to tech companies reported by Nextgov, clearly shows that the U.S. government very probably has “Manhattan Project”-like ambitions concerning the second quantum revolution.

Nextgov noted that DARPA has released a detailed solicitation for entities and organizations interested in creating a fault-tolerant quantum computer (FTQC). They’re invited to submit initial proposals by 23 March, 2022. 

“We want to go into this with our eyes open, knowing that there's a lot of companies who are already doing this,” said DARPA’s Altepeter.

Are China and Europe likely just as engaged in the Quantum arms race? No doubt.

Meanwhile, the current world crisis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, riddled with political and diplomatic blunders, has the world on the edge of another nuclear crisis, courtesy of the first quantum revolution.

The state of affairs demonstrates again how technological innovations should never be confused with automatically equating to human progress. The unbounded quest for god-like powers which technology is delivering at an ever faster pace, comes with an unbound hubris that we are capable of wielding that power for an overall good.

Would it be better for humans to recognize that the quest for unlimited technological advancement may have the most ironic and perverse outcomes imaginable, given the limits of human nature?

Technocratic elites have an answer to that, of course. With quantum technology, AI, robotics and genetic manipulations of biopharma, they intend to change humans too.

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