Biden’s push for new quantum controls has one big problem: Nobody knows where to draw the line

The Commerce Department is talking with quantum computing companies in an effort to develop additional trade restrictions on the technology. The discussions fit into the Biden administration’s plan to protect emerging and foundational tech.

US President Joe Biden looks at a quantum computer as he tours the IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, New York, on October 6, 2022. - IBM hosted US President Joe Biden Thursday to celebrate the announcement of a $20-billion investment in semiconductors, quantum computing and other cutting-edge technology in New York state. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Quantum computing is part of one of the three broad families of technology critical to the U.S. in the coming decade.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Commerce Department is in the midst of developing new trade restrictions intended to blunt the progress of China’s quantum computing ambitions, Protocol has learned, a move that comes on the heels of new export controls on advanced semiconductor tech.

It’s unclear how quickly any such measure could be enacted. Discussions with the private sector — including Google, IBM, Quantinuum, and IonQ — have been ongoing for years, and span both the Biden and Trump administrations. However, there’s mounting pressure to move faster, particularly from the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, which see China’s progress on quantum as a significant concern, according to industry sources familiar with the deliberations; they requested anonymity to speak freely about private conversations regarding sensitive government policy ideas.

Asked for comment on the progress of these efforts, the Commerce Department and the White House directed Protocol to recent remarks from Undersecretary for Industry and Security Alan Estevez. “So will we end up doing something in those areas?” he said when asked last week about additional controls on quantum computing equipment. “If I was a betting person, I would put down money on that.”

The agency declined to comment further.

However, in September, national security adviser Jake Sullivan listed quantum computing as a part of one of the three broad families of technology — biotech, clean energy, and computing — critical to the U.S. in the coming decade that the administration is looking to protect.

Despite notable advancements, quantum computing still remains a nascent technology, especially when compared to other emerging tech areas like AI. That makes regulating the sector tricky for the Biden administration: Export controls could harm, or even torpedo, the overall progress of the field and pave the way for other countries to take a more commanding lead in the development of the tech that, while still very experimental, may obliterate the capabilities of classical computing.

Globally, however, there is acknowledgement that some guardrails are necessary. Discussions of a broader set of export controls have been ongoing within the Wassenaar nations. But the U.S. wants to act more aggressively and go beyond the parameters being developed by the group of 41 states — a cohort that includes Russia — established in 1995 to oversee tech used both by the military and civilians.

The U.S. is aiming to reach an agreement with other countries that have invested heavily in quantum and serve as critical partners for domestic quantum producers — namely Japan, which signed a quantum cooperation agreement with the U.S. in 2019 — along with intelligence allies Australia and the U.K., two industry sources told Protocol. That broad desire was reiterated by Estevez last week, though it’s unclear what such an agreement would look like and whether it would be done under the guise of the Wassenaar nations or another international body, like NATO.

While the Commerce Department wants to move quickly and could issue new regulations before the end of the year, it is likely to be pushed into 2023, those sources said.

Too many cooks

In 2018, Congress passed export control legislation that directed the White House to establish a process to determine what emerging technologies might be of national security concerns if they are exported out of the U.S.

The legislation installed the Commerce Department as the leader of that process, but included three other federal agencies — the Defense, Energy, and State departments — in the consultation process, and any others that are necessary. Other agencies, such as the NSA, participate too. And the White House, through the National Security Council, typically plays a coordinating role in setting broad policy.

Now, startups like Quantinnum and IonQ, as well as larger manufacturers including IBM and Google, are all meeting with the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which oversees the writing of export controls, according to industry sources.

While the discussions now are viewed as a precursor to new controls, talks have been ongoing for years, including during the Trump administration. In late 2021, for example, the Commerce Department held discussions with companies over how it would seek to enact export restrictions on the quantum industry, per government and industry sources, including how the administration planned to evaluate the performance of quantum computers and the limits around qubit processing that would trigger controls.

After opposition to those early ideas, BIS and other departments, like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are trying to take a more measured approach that wouldn’t throttle the U.S. and also reflects the nascent nature of the tech, the sources said.

However, the agency is facing pressure from the NSA, which is strongly advocating for new export controls, government and industry sources said. The NSA has a keen interest in quantum, both to understand how the tech could be used to decrypt sensitive U.S. information and how it could be used to access encrypted data from adversaries, the sources added. The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s still unclear exactly how the Commerce Department would craft any new export controls given quantum computers are still very much still in the development stage. It’s notable, however, that the administration appears to be narrowing in on specific areas, like error-correction software, as well as end applications that will eventually run on top of the quantum computers, the sources said.

Many in the industry have framed hardware advancements based on the number of qubits — the core unit of measurement in quantum computing — their respective machines can process. But the metric can be misleading.

Many of those qubits may not be stable enough to produce accurate results, greatly reducing the power of the hardware. That’s why Commerce staffers have acknowledged the importance of error-correction software, which helps improve the quality of the qubits and, ultimately, the capabilities of the quantum computers.

There’s also a challenge of how to oversee networked quantum computers. A customer, for example, might be able to purchase multiple computers from different providers all under some predetermined performance threshold — like 200 qubits, for example — to avoid export controls. They could then use them in conjunction with one another to build a more powerful machine, one that theoretically would exceed a 200-qubit processing limit that would be subject to controls.

Ditch the bath water, keep the baby

The most pressing problem when it comes to regulating quantum computing is that no one knows exactly what successful quantum computers will look like. Unlike more mature areas of tech such as semiconductors, there aren’t easily identifiable chokepoints that the BIS could cut off.

There isn’t a standard approach to building quantum computers, or a set of standard tools that are necessary, which the U.S. has historically targeted to hobble access to a specific tech. There’s also the question of software, which could be tricky to place under export controls. A large portion of quantum software is open-sourced. However, key parts of the stack — like the software that ultimately connects to the hardware as well as the user-facing applications — remain proprietary.

And any additional actions on quantum hardware or software run the risk of hindering domestic advancement. Many of the components used by U.S.-based quantum hardware manufacturers, for example, are sourced internationally. Germany is a major exporter of laser technology used in quantum, while Finland exports refrigerators needed for the computers to work.

New export controls could make it harder for them to operate globally and, potentially, hinder their ability to get the pieces necessary to advance the machines, industry sources said. For example, an export control placed on a certain part could add considerable time to the procurement process and may even convince a foreign supplier to halt sales completely to avoid the compliance nightmare. It would also impact the ability of manufacturers to sell cloud access to their computers, even to domestic customers, and publish scientific research based on the systems.

The challenge is also that the U.S. is taking a very different approach to quantum. Japan, Denmark, Italy, Germany, and other nations witnessed the tech revolution of the past few decades from the sidelines. Now, eager to get an early lead in what could be a multibillion-dollar industry that redefines the tech sector as we know it, those countries do not appear as willing to take actions under the guise of national security that could threaten the development of their domestic quantum economies, sources told Protocol.

Quantum technology is years if not decades away from broad commercial or military use. But it has advanced quickly with companies like IBM, Quantinuum, and IonQ publishing more aggressive product road maps.

China is also investing heavily in quantum. And unlike the U.S., China has striven to unify its efforts across all the country’s economic sectors, a move intended to prepare China to capitalize on both the monetary and security advantages that quantum may one day provide.

Barring any major course change, the U.S. is clearly bent on maintaining a national-security-first approach to quantum. In fact, there are some in the intelligence community who would rather risk imploding the entire U.S. industry just to blockade China, according to industry sources.

That doesn’t seem to be a widespread belief. The Biden administration is said to be keenly aware of the challenge of navigating both security and economic concerns. Still, it’s a tough line to straddle. Any action will almost certainly have some impact on domestic manufacturers. And the outcome could reverberate not just through quantum, but any developing tech that poses a risk if it reaches bad actors.


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