What is Canada’s current national quantum strategy? Is it doing enough to prepare us for leadership as the quantum tech “revolution” unfolds?
There’s been a lot of strategic thinking across government, academia, and even in some parts of industry, but Canada doesn’t yet have a coherent national quantum strategy. While we recognize that there has been a lot of strict strategizing, it’s has not been what we need. Consequently, many of us in the quantum community are calling for the formation of a coherent national quantum strategy on an urgent basis. A carefully crafted set of recommendations has been proposed to the federal government and is currently under consideration. I think there is a great urgency that we do embark on a smart path forward soon. Canada has the ingredients for global leadership, but we aren’t in a position to capitalize on our potential, which is a classic Canadian story. We are stuck in this pattern of brilliantly creating opportunity and then not capitalizing on it.
The Canadian quantum commercialization sector has been ahead of even the United States. The U.S is doing great things in their research labs, in industry, but in terms of trying to sell products and services, Canada is ahead of the game. A few years ago, the U.S launched their national quantum initiative. With that came millions of dollars to coordinate the quantum economic development consortium and build the quantum ecosystem. The U.S government said, “we’re going to spend billions on this initiative—part of that will be the creating of a quantum commercialization ecosystem, because it will benefit us economically.” Canada’s equivalent of this is an association of 24 quantum companies, including many established global leaders, that came together in their own right and strategized the same activities the US QEDC is funding on our own; no one had to tell us to do it. We have similar objectives, but no external support like QEDC does. It isn’t even clear what the vehicle for getting external support in Canada might look like.
Even though Canada started off ahead of the game, that is no longer the case. We need to quickly agree on a coherent national strategy—a good one, not a pretend one. No strategy theatre. The strategy needs a clear focus—security and economic prosperity for Canadians. We have to sincerely commit to a course that helps us build a stronger and more resilient Canada.
On the supply side we have an enormous fraction of the world’s quantum start-ups—I think the number in Canada is comparable to the rest of the world combined. We’re punching way above our weight, but we’ve been losing opportunity with respect to government and large sectors using these products and services. If we’re not proactive there will be two very serious negative consequences for the Canadian economy and our security. Industries and government departments that don’t adopt new technologies won’t be ready for quantum disruptions, nor will they benefit from the positive applications that quantum can offer. Failure to adapt will ultimately impact our productivity and economic strength. If we don’t have a vibrant domestic user base, we will inevitably lose the end game. If all our customers are abroad, it will be more difficult getting funding in Canada.
These great opportunities that we’ve invested billions of dollars in will largely benefit foreign companies and foreign investors. We want to engage internationally, but we need to do a much better job domestically. Being better customers is one of the key ingredients of creating a more successful Canadian ecosystem. We can’t complain about our companies relocating abroad or getting bought out if the customer market here isn’t supportive.
Is Canadian critical infrastructure preparing to address the potential security threats and disruptions associated with quantum computing? Are there specific gaps that we need to address in the near-term?
Quantum computing will impact our economy, defence, and so on. What we know for sure is that it’ll break public key cryptography, which will directly or indirectly impact all of our critical infrastructure. That could be a devastating problem if met too late—we’re talking about an apocalyptic situation where you have sustained collapse of critical infrastructures.
People can analyze how bad that would be but if we rush our response, that will be catastrophic too. We’re currently on a losing trajectory. and we have to find a way to leapfrog and get ahead of things in a thoughtful fashion. Viewing the retooling of our cryptographic foundations as a crisis is not going to help, because we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. We’ll open ourselves to all sorts of attacks and interoperability problems. You certainly don’t want to do a massive repair of your entire air fleet at the last minute with unqualified technicians at the helm. If this isn’t planned properly, our digital infrastructure will be upgraded in a very messy way that will open doors to all sort of security and business problems, because systems won’t work properly.
On a positive note, we’ve done a lot recently. There are individuals that deserve credit for the proactive work they have done in Canada. The Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity is doing great work by offering individuals and industry knowledge and assistance. Industry Canada deserves credit for setting up the Canadian Forum for Digital Infrastructure Resilience, in collaboration with industry. I chair a working group that is developing best practices for quantum resilience as well. First, you have to prepare, then you start your discovery exercise, then you do an assessment analysis based on what you’ve learned about your own systems, etc. However, resources, guidance and the ability to address threats don’t magically translate into actually addressing threats. You can take a horse to water, as the saying goes. Despite the great work that has been done, and the great foundations that we’re able to build on, we’re still not prepared.
We still have time to change, but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re panicking. Today’s crises are often the result of yesterday’s procrastination. U.S Congress passed a bill recently requiring DOD to do an analysis of the impact of quantum threats on national security-related critical infrastructure within six months. I’m not saying we need to do it that way in Canada, but one way or another, we need all of our critical infrastructure secure. We need to be doing these kinds of assessments and have them completed by the end of 2021. We need to embark on our next steps—a plan of action —by 2022. This is not something we can just keep thinking about, reflecting on, and putting off to another day.
How can military technologies or other technologies vital to critical infrastructure keep pace with the development of quantum-enabled technologies?
We can’t always be in reaction mode. I think the military is one of the few segments of our government that really does think strategically and understands the importance of it. You’re often on the front lines, but you’re also thinking about 20-30 years into the future. You do horizon exercises and more. Quantum safety is somewhere on their priority list. I think its time now, if they haven’t already started, to switch it into much higher gear. We’re entering a new era and need to aggressively scale up our engagement with the quantum technology sector. Quantum is one of those technologies, where once it starts working, the impact could be absolutely tremendous—exponential in some cases. The military will have to increase the in-house familiarity of their own personnel. There’s some, but I think that just needs to be augmented tremendously at this point. We don’t know exactly when and where, but the technology is coming very soon. We already know we need to get very serious and focused on this. We have to start engaging vendors, and innovators in this space, and probably form a trusted advisory board to help. You need a trusted group of people to advise you on what else is coming, and what else you need to focus on. We must do everything we can to stay ahead of the curve.
What is the most important thing for people to understand when discussion quantum readiness or quantum strategy?
We need to emphasize balance. There’s no need to panic, but we need to move assertively. I think a lot of people stop listening after hearing “we don’t need to panic” though. Quantum readiness is no longer something we can put off into the future as we deal with today’s crises. We need to focus on the crises of today, while designating resources to start preparing for this very disruptive suite of technologies and their implications. These can be very positive disruptions if we embrace them and use them. As I said, crises are often the result of yesterday’s procrastination. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone, but we just need to recognize this and genuinely internalize that we need to do something. This isn’t like other problems. We can’t just play catch up later. Quantum readiness is now an imperative to maintain our security and economic prosperity.
Michele Mosca is the director of Quantum-Safe Canada and the Co-Founder of the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is a Professor in the Department of Combinatorics & Optimization of the Faculty of Mathematics, and a founding member of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He was the founding Director of CryptoWorks21, a training program in quantum-safe cryptography. He is a founder of the ETSI-IQC workshop series in Quantum-Safe Cryptography, and the not-for-profit Quantum-Safe Canada. He co-founded evolutionQ Inc. to support organizations as they evolve their quantum-vulnerable systems to quantum-safe ones and softwareQ Inc. to provide quantum software tools and services. He obtained his doctorate in Mathematics in 1999 from Oxford on the topic of Quantum Computer Algorithms, an MSc in Mathematics and the Foundations of Computer Science in 1996 from Oxford, and a BMath in Combinatorics & Optimization and Pure Mathematics in 1995 from Waterloo.