Jan 5, 2024 Article

Imagining Success in a Post-Quantum Future

By the end of 2027, states and private industry will have invested over $16 billion in quantum computing, according to the International Data Corporation. Quantum computers hold much promise for advancing research in AI models, cryptography (the art and science of encoding information), and sorting through unstructured data sets. Theoretically, when society reaches the technological milestone of all-purpose, commercial-scale quantum computing, we will have achieved a new era of computation. And apart from computers, other technologies like quantum sensing “could become commercially, or militarily ready within the next few years,” says a RAND study.

As states invest in quantum technologies to gain a competitive edge in security and innovation, multi-stakeholder discussions on these tools are also expanding. Multilateral governance frameworks for quantum computing could serve as a means for states to protect their digital sovereignty. According to the Open Quantum Institute in Geneva, which will officially open its doors in March 2024 at CERN, there is an equally “strong need for international cooperation in order to preserve human agency, accelerate our progress towards the [UN Sustainable Development Goals], and ensure that the whole world contributes to and benefits from quantum computing.”

Although there is a high degree of uncertainty about the projected timeline for developing commercial-scale quantum computers, cryptographers are concerned about the immediate cybersecurity risks that quantum technology presents to cryptographic systems, like harvest now decrypt later (HNDL) cyberattacks. As part of these attacks, malicious actors exfiltrate and store encrypted data today, to then decrypt it in the future using post-quantum cryptographic systems. Consequently, HNDL attacks pose acute risks to systems that safeguard critical infrastructure and secure military and civilian communications.

In response to the mounting concerns of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on the security and use of information and communications technologies, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) recently convened a multi-stakeholder dialogue on quantum technologies and the implications for global stability. A major goal of this dialogue was to raise awareness about the potential disruptive effects emerging from quantum technologies and encourage states to begin considering how to come together to develop an agreed normative framework.

Focusing on potential risks to better anticipate future needs

This hybrid event showcased two panel discussions moderated by UNIDIR senior researcher Dongyoun Cho, a retired major of the Republic of Korea Army. The first panel provided an overview of quantum computing and featured Géraldine Haack, physics professor at the University of Geneva, and myself. The second panel assessed the impact of quantum tools on international peace and security and included speakers Gaurav Keerthi, head of advisory and emerging business at Ensign InfoSecurity; Violi Benjamin, program manager of the Quantum and Critical Infrastructures Team at Microsoft; and Andrea G. Rodríguez, lead European Union (EU) digital policy analyst for the EU Digital Agenda, European Policy Centre. Closing remarks were offered by Marieke Hood, executive director with the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, who estimated that it could take eight to ten years until quantum computers reach a stage of maturity and scale such that they are “useful” for solving real-world problems.

"Success in preparing for our post-quantum future depends on robust multilateral discussions to achieve a consensus-driven governance model."

Major takeaways from the proceedings

The main themes of this event were that policymakers need to anticipate the educational and training needs for cultivating a quantum-ready workforce, and be prepared to address complex issues stemming from the ethical and responsible adoption of quantum tools. But the path ahead is not an easy one for the global community. The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator’s 2023 report cautions that “policymakers may need more help in being able to distinguish scientific and economic facts from hype as the sector seeks to attract investors.”

For these reasons, multilateral discussions to deepen understanding, promote international capacity-building, and ensure accountability for states’ observance of shared cyber norms are instrumental. Efforts like those of UNIDIR; the Global Quantum Jam initiative, which aims to bring quantum education into the classroom; and the nascent Open Quantum Institute are commendable examples of initial steps for exploring international governance mechanisms for the responsible use of quantum technology. But recall, the path ahead is not an easy one for any stakeholder. Rather, success in preparing for our post-quantum future depends on robust multilateral discussions to achieve a consensus-driven governance model.

Carnegie Council Visiting Fellow Zhanna L. Malekos Smith served as an expert speaker at the UNIDIR multi-stakeholder dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland on November 30, 2023.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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