Defence implications of quantum technologies

14 March 2019


Banner image: Quantum computing by Kevin Dooley on flickr

Reported by Ben Walker, EPSRC Policy Intern (September - December 2018)

In a technological landscape which is rapidly changing, including the recent announcement by the UK government to extend the National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) into ‘phase 2’ with an extra £315m of funding for the period 2019-24, it is important to know what implications such technologies have for defence.

CSaP convened a roundtable discussion, chaired by Sir Richard Mottram (former Permanent Secretary, Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the Cabinet Office), which brought together leading quantum scientists, those involved in the nascent quantum technologies industry, and defence experts to assess the landscape and discuss what steps we must take to mitigate the risks, whilst retaining the wider societal benefits of these new technologies. Discussion included hearing about the work going on in the four UK quantum technologies hubs, and how ‘phase 2’ of the NQTP will include more focus on involving companies and bringing products to market.

As well as the more technical aspects of new quantum technologies, the attendees looked at some of the relevant wider issues, including what ethical questions might be raised by the introduction of new quantum technologies, how we can anticipate these questions and how we can make sure they are addressed properly. The timescale over which these technologies will become available was talked about, and the answers varied widely depending on the particular quantum technology in question, from quantum communication devices which are available for purchase today (albeit expensive and bulky) to a universal, fault tolerant quantum computer for which the estimates were 10-20 years.

One issue discussed was how poor communication of quantum science can act as a barrier for these new technologies. The connotations of quantum with ‘spooky’ or incomprehensible can lead to an unwillingness to engage with, or even a suspicion of, quantum technologies. The parallel was drawn with transistors and electronics, the science of which people understand as much as they do quantum, but people are more willing to engage with these technologies. The search, therefore, must begin for the David Attenborough of quantum technologies!