The most serious national-security challenge America faces in the next decade isn’t going to be North Korea, or Russia, or even China — or at least not the China conventional geopolitical strategists think about today. It’s going to be whoever wins the race to build the world’s first large-scale quantum computer — a computer that relies on the principles of quantum physics to solve complex mathematical problems that even the world’s fastest supercomputers can’t tackle.
Here’s how the fictional CIA director in David Ignatius’s new espionage thriller puts it: “The president is obsessed with quantum computing. . . . He doesn’t understand it, but he has briefers from Yale and MIT stacked up over the West Wing like airplanes over Dulles. They all tell him the same thing: Quantum computing is a paradigm shift. It’s like Galileo and Newton. He listens to these professors, and then he tells everyone around the table in the Sit Room: ‘This will change everything.’”
Quantum computing will mean putting hitherto unimaginable miracles of science, such as the development of advanced designer drugs, in everyday reach. Unfortunately, it also means that virtually every cyber-encryption system around the planet, including those that house our most vital national secrets and even the vaunted blockchain technology, can be cracked open in an instant.
Today quantum computers are the stuff not of fiction but of engineering reality, and right now there is a race to achieve what scientists call “quantum supremacy,” which is when a single quantum computer can outperform even the most advanced conventional computers. In the United States, Google, Microsoft, and IBM have all built actual working quantum computers and are now steadily approaching the threshold of quantum supremacy. But China is currently outspending the U.S. government 30 to 1 to beat everyone to the quantum brass ring. While our government doles out $200 million a year to various agencies doing quantum research, Beijing has launched a $10 billion crash program to build a 4 million–square-foot national quantum laboratory in the city of Heifi in order to equip its armed forces with key quantum technologies, and has already launched the world’s first quantum satellite able to send messages using quantum-encryption technology that can’t be hacked, ever.
All this forms the background for The Quantum Spy, in which a CIA officer named Harris Chang is hot on the trail of a Chinese mole who’s been stealing quantum-computing secrets from the United States’ most sensitive research labs — secrets that could ultimately mean a world dominated by China instead of the United States.
The hallmarks of all of Ignatius’s novels are vividly drawn but true-to-life characters and fast action grounded in real-life politics and technology. In this case, the technology is quantum computers.
How do quantum computers work? In the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, electrons and photons can be in two states at once (physicists call this “superposition”). All current computers, even supercomputers, process data in a linear sequence of ones and zeros. Every “bit,” the smallest unit of data, has to be either a zero or a one. But a quantum bit or “qubit” can be a zero and a one at the same time, and do two computations at once. Add more qubits, and the computing power grows exponentially. Ten qubits can do 1,000 calculations at once; 30 can do a billion. This will allow quantum computers of the future to solve problems thousands of times faster than the fastest supercomputer — the equivalent of being able to read every book in the Library of Congress at once, instead of one at a time.
This means death for most current encryption systems, because they are based on math problems that would take a conventional computer centuries to solve. Not even blockchain encryption will be able to withstand the first quantum attack, if it relies on classical two-key encryption architecture — the same architecture protecting nearly all digital information today, from our bank accounts and the power grid to every federal agency (including the Pentagon).
Quantum supremacy (which theoretically means a computer of 50 qubits or more) in the hands of an enemy would be a national-security nightmare, as the characters in Quantum Spy, both Americans and Chinese, are all too well aware. They include Chang, a thirtysomething Chinese-American CIA intelligence officer who catches Beijing’s spies for a living; his ruthless boss, John Vandel; the equally ruthless Chinese intel chief, Li Zian; and Roger Kronholz of the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency.
Kronholz falls increasingly under suspicion of being the Chinese mole, as does Denise Ford, another CIA researcher, freshly arrived in D.C. from Paris to work the quantum beat. Eventually even Chang finds himself coming under scrutiny, in part because of his Chinese ancestry but also because no one can trust anyone in the “wilderness of mirrors” that makes up the world of counterintelligence — especially scientists whose first instinct is to share their data and research with other scientists rather than adhere to the rules imposed by security clearances and “need to know.”
The plot of Quantum Spy thus rests on a conflict besides the one between China and the United States: the one between science and security, between advancing knowledge and protecting national assets built around that knowledge.
It’s an issue that needs sorting out in real life, especially in the United States, where university-based quantum experts often find themselves working with their Chinese and Russian counterparts. A company such as Google doesn’t hesitate to build its new artificial-intelligence research center in China and to equip it with Chinese staff. Throw in the fact that, according to leading experts, getting to Quantum D-Day might take only another five years, and we face a national crisis of existential proportions.
Why is quantum research taking as long as it is? Qubits are notoriously volatile and keeping them stable enough to do their job is immensely difficult. Ignatius describes the process: “Normally, researchers could push the fragile qubits into the superpositioned state that was both one and zero for a few milliseconds . . . and their power to compute was immense. But then flutter — heat, light, magnetic field fluctuations, even the jitters caused by the lasers themselves — would disrupt the array and the coherence would collapse.”
In the novel, coherence collapses for Harris Chang as well, as his search for the mole dissolves into a labyrinth of betrayal and deception. In the end, he learns that he, like the quanta, isn’t “a zero or a one”: “He occupied a space where things are ambiguous, where people are simultaneously friend and foe, loyal and disloyal, impossible to define until the moment when events intervene and force each particle, each heart, to one side or the other.”
But whatever the ambiguities of Ignatius’s plot and characters, there are none about the consequences of who wins, and who loses, the quantum race. In November, IBM announced that it had crossed the crucial 50-qubit threshold (if only for 59 nanoseconds). As was the case with the race to build the first hydrogen bomb, the future of the world hangs in the balance. If The Quantum Spy can raise awareness of the seriousness of the issue, and of the threat we face, Ignatius has done a public service, as well as written a smartly paced, thoughtful spy thriller.
– Mr. Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder.