Quantum security - how one CIA agent spied opportunity in the new atomic age

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton February 8, 2022 Audio mode
A former CIA officer sees big potential in quantum computing – and in making the US government tackle the threat from China.

An image of Laura E Thomas, VP of Corporate Strategy for ColdQuanta Inc
(Image sourced from ColdQuanta website)

America needs to stay ahead of China in the race towards quantum computing, a technology that the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) regards as a global security risk. That's according to Laura E Thomas, VP of Corporate Strategy for ColdQuanta Inc. The Colorado-based provider of quantum hardware and sensors was founded in 2007, making it an early mover in this space.

But Thomas is no typical tech executive. She is described as ‘a former CIA case officer and Chief of Base, who led sensitive programs at CIA Headquarters, and abroad in multiple international assignments'. So, she is more qualified than most to talk about national security. Indeed, it's something she still actively pursues in her new role, which embraces security solutions.

Thomas' move out of international espionage and into a new cold war and atomic age - the world of cold-atom quantum hardware, in this case - is unusual. So, I grabbed the opportunity to talk to her about the future of this exciting technology, and about security, innovation, skills, and geopolitics. Here's our Q&A. 

diginomica - Why does a CIA agent move into quantum computing? And why choose ColdQuanta?

Towards the end of my time at the CIA, I was looking at emerging technologies. Just seeing it from the perspective of a CIA officer, the developments around the world and the growing role that technology will play in the future for national security and technology policy. I wanted to find a way to get closer to the action.

I decided it was time to branch out and expose myself to the industry side, because I had been with the government for most of my career. Quantum had all the hallmarks of a disruptive technology, so I started looking at different companies. ColdQuanta stood out to me because it had an excellent reputation in US government circles.

diginomica - ColdQuanta produces quantum computing, sensors, networking, and memory, plus systems that emulate quantum processes on classical computers. Why did the company choose a cold-atom rather than semiconductor-based model?

Our core technology is cold atoms, where we trap, manipulate, and measure atoms in small, ultra-high-vacuum glass cells. Depending on how we array [sic] the atoms, with lasers that we use to trap and manipulate them, we can branch into either quantum computing or build different types of quantum sensors. That's the breadth of work we do - not only on the government side, but also in the commercialization of this technology.

Many industry verticals and Fortune 500 companies are starting to put forward budget and hire quantum personnel to help them understand what this technology could unlock. It's still early days, but we're going to start seeing a boom because we're at an inflection point. Quantum is starting to jump out of the lab and into devices and use cases. […] It's hard to imagine a world where quantum doesn't touch every industry vertical.

diginomica - A recent report identified a ‘Big Five' of companies - Amazon/AWS, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel - that are leading the quantum race in the US, mirrored by the likes of Alibaba and Baidu in China. In most cases they will be offering quantum computing as a cloud service, but ColdQuanta has a different, more hardware-centric approach?

First, we're a hardware company. We're building the picks and shovels of the quantum ecosystem. We manufacture the glass cells I described. We have a quantum computer [Hilbert, a cloud-based platform that will deliver 100 qubits this year]. And we're working on quantum sensors - most of that work is for the US government.

But in the future, we see quantum as pushing out into the edge environment. If your vision of the world is that everyone dials into a ‘big brain' of a computer for processing power, then there are the big players out there - the Googles, Microsofts, and AWSs. That's the world those entities have created, and they were certainly the disruptors of the past.

But there will be new disruptors of the future, and they might take an alternative view of how quantum will work. Whereas if you look at IBM, for example, they have these large fab facilities. So, they're fitting the technology into a process, into a system, they already had. We're starting from more of a blank slate.

While I think quantum processing in the cloud is going to be the reality for the next few years, the Internet of Things will push quantum into edge devices. And that diverges from the more centralised view of the world. The quantum edge is ColdQuanta's sweet spot.

diginomica - How important is the fast-emerging concept of post-quantum cryptography [PQC] and post-quantum security? In other words, protecting the West's classical and quantum systems from the quantum technologies of hostile states? Is this a ColdQuanta strategy?

ColdQuanta is focused on building quantum devices, so we're not rolling out post-quantum cryptography - there are a number of companies that do that [including the ‘Big Five'].

But yes it's important because we know that some nations have this concept of ‘steal now, decrypt later', where massive amounts of data are being harvested and held until the point where there are sufficiently powerful quantum computers to decrypt it. That's a major threat to governments around the world.

And not just governments. Think about emails, health records, or industrial and proprietary data. That could become extremely problematic. So, it's worth companies investing today to make sure they have post-quantum security solutions rolled out on their networks.

Some people will say, ‘It's going to be some time until quantum computers can decrypt all this data, so we might as well wait'. But if an entity is collecting data now and just sitting on it, then that data will still be sensitive when quantum computers can crack the encryption. Then you will have a problem.

In a race with China 

diginomica - China is a fast-rising threat to US dominance - in the quantum field and in others. What should our perspective be on this, given these comments about security?

The US is still the leading tech innovation country, but I do think the gap is closing with China, which is rapidly advancing. In a merit-based, competitive world, the US should welcome global competition. It's a good motivator for internal improvement and, in a global sense, technology can provide real improvements in everyday lives. But instead, that competition is now coming from a country whose ruling party is using technology to actively suppress entire populations.  

To make sure that the gap doesn't close any further, the United States must take a very allied approach to technology innovation. Global challenges require global solutions, so it's in the United States' interests to partner with many countries around the world to tap into the innovation that's going on outside US borders.

The US has to be able to tap into the global talent pool. Part of that means continuing to open our borders and have favourable immigration policies to those who would like to study and eventually live and work in the United States. That's the first part.

The second is we have to revamp the US government's acquisition processes. That's not a revelation - very senior people have been talking about it for years. But turning smart talk into smart action across mammoth bureaucracies is not for the faint hearted. And it remains a challenge.

diginomica - So, what's the solution?

There are US government leaders that are really advocating for this. They're advocating for a comprehensive approach between government, academia, and industry, and I include venture-capital and private-equity in this.

If you look at the commentary coming out of the Department of Defense's Innovation Unit, Mike Brown [Managing Director of the Unit] is leading that. Then there's Heidi Shyu, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. They're all advocating for this.

But ultimately, Congress is going to have to revamp the Federal Acquisition Regulation [FAR]. It was built for a different era when we needed very long time-horizons to buy very large platforms, like ships. Technology compresses timeframes, and it compresses decision-making, so we need a very agile approach where we quickly adopt technology.

Institutions get the behaviours they reward. And right now, the impetus isn't there to be rapid, proactive, diversified, and risk-taking. To tackle that, we're going to have to see congressional overhaul. To rebuild the way that we approach acquisitions.

diginomica - Aside from their respective politics, is another key difference between the US and China the fact that Beijing is directly involved in funding most local innovation? Whereas in the US investment largely comes from the private sector, from tech hotspots like Silicon Valley and Texas, where there are corporations with market caps bigger than most nations' GDPs. Should the government be more involved in nurturing new technologies?

The US has done that in the past. If you look back at how the Internet was created, it was largely the US government [the 1960s-70s work of Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and others, to build a communications network for the Department of Defense].

But I would never say that we need to emulate China by having more government control of industry or anything like that. But we do need to diverge from how Federal acquisition works - in the way it acquires and evaluates technology, and adopts it into US government programmes.

But, if you look at quantum in particular, we also need to ensure that the government doesn't move too early to regulate the industry before it has had a chance to gain a foothold, and gain momentum, because that would be cutting it off at the knees.

diginomica - So, how can the US government be as nimble as a tech company, including in the uptake of quantum systems?

It's for Congress to address the FAR, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. But that is a massive undertaking. It will have to dig deep into current processes and legislate better ones.

The second thing is already happening: it's those leaders within the Department of Defense who are actively tackling this. They're talking about getting out there and educating other governments, advocating for a more agile approach that takes into consideration the need to diversify risk-taking. To not always go with large incumbents, to figure out how to adapt technology and adopt it in a way that's more rapid, rather than ticking through these long budgetary cycles.

That's happening, but it has to happen more. And it needs more people talking about it. All this is a huge undertaking, because the processes we have in place are legacy ones that have been entrenched for decades.

In quantum specifically, one of the biggest challenges we face is the talent and the workforce. It's imperative that we attract people from diverse backgrounds to the field - historically that has not been the case.

One way we like to do that is to work closely with universities. The National Science Foundation has helped fund the establishment of quantum research platforms, such as Albert [ColdQuanta's design and emulation platform]. Especially at universities that have historically underrepresented populations.

My take

A conversation that reveals something little acknowledged outside the US - America is grappling with the same problems as other countries as it seeks to capitalize on fast-emerging technologies - before others get there first.

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