Podcast with Adm. Mike Rogers — Former Director of the National Security Agency
My guest today is Admiral Michael Rogers, USN (RET), a retired 4-star general, former director of the National Security Agency and commander of the US Cyber command. We spoke about the geopolitical implications of the quantum arms race, the dark side and upside of quantum computing and much more.
THE FULL TRANSCRIPT IS BELOW
Yuval Boger (CMO, Classiq): Hello, Admiral Rogers. Thanks for joining me today.
Adm. Mike Rogers: Yuval, thank you very much for the opportunity. Please call me Mike. I’m really not much of an Admiral anymore.
Yuval: That’s great. Mike, who are you and what do you do?
Mike: Retired Admiral, was in the government, in the military, in the United States Navy for 37 years, retired as a four-star Director of the National Security Agency, the Commander of US Cyber. My focus really was intelligence and cyber. As I transitioned into the private sector, I tend to focus on cyber security technology, writ large leadership and national security geopolitics are my focus. What brings us together today., I’m part of the Team8 family. Quantum clearly was of interest in me when I was in government. I find myself very interested and involved in it now, in the private sector, as I look at what’s coming down the road, what’s the way ahead here, what are the technologies that are going to play out.
Yuval: When people talk about quantum, there’s a lot of talk about quantum cryptography, and then there’s some talk about quantum computing and quantum sensing. Because of your NSA background, why don’t we start with the cryptography side? Are you concerned that quantum computers will be able to break the code, whether it’s a financial system or other encryption systems?
Mike: Clearly the potential is there. Remember one of the things that safeguards current commercial grade cryptographic material or encryption is the fact that there are so many variables in it. That the current state of the art computational capability means it would take a computer a long time to actually plow through all the different variables, to come up with ‘what the algorithm is’ and to break it. Quantum because it could potentially process so many different variables simultaneously at a much greater speed, suddenly takes a series of calculations that take years today and potentially compresses them down into a much, much shorter time period. Now, the thing that’s interesting to me, and it’s a bit of an unknown here is, quantum has both offensive capabilities, if you will. Potentially the ability to use this computational capacity to really blow through current encryption. But by the same token, it also has some defensive means. It’ll give us the capabilities to harden in some ways to a greater extent, current commercial encryption. And so, I think the jury is still out. But the challenge is, the price of getting this wrong can be very high.
Yuval: When you think about whether it’s your government or industry that you are exposed to, when did that become a topic? How many are years ago, if it was years or not months, did companies start saying, “We really have to think about that. Our encryption could be broken. We have to upgrade our systems, or we could put something that’s quantum resistant.”
Mike: You’ve seen some companies, some universities, some elements in the government, not just the US, but governments more broadly. You have seen some elements within those ecosystems and within the cryptographic world, have been looking and talking about quantum now, for over a decade. It’s interesting to see how the timelines have compressed. If you go back ten years ago, what you heard was, to get to a quantum capacity, both in terms of the number of qubits, as well as their stability over time. To get to an actual working quantum computational capability with enough capacity, for example, to work the toughest problem sets like commercial encryption. “That’s probably 30 years away, 40 years away.” That’s what you heard ten years ago. About five years ago, you started to hear, “That’s probably a 15 to 20 year problem.” And quite frankly, what you’re hearing now is, “That’s probably somewhere around a ten year problem, potentially by the end of the decade.” So, you keep seeing incremental progress.
The last point I would make is, quantum has a variety of and capabilities. We often tend to focus on the high end toughest problems that are going to take us the longest to really develop and grow the technology. But, there’s a lot of lesser applications for quantum that you’re starting to see play out today.
Yuval: There’s a lot of talk about the quantum arms race, the equivalent of a space race. So, US and Europe, and of course, China and Russia, and who knows, who else? Is that a real thing? Are you worried about a quantum arms race?
Mike: Well, many nations around the world, particularly the most industrialized or the most developed have identified quantum as a technology that once perfected, if you will, has both significant economic as well as national security impact and that there will be advantage to be gained if you will, by having those sets of capabilities. Particularly, if you’re able to do it earlier than some of your competition, whether that competition be from an economic perspective, from a national security perspective, from an espionage perspective. So, multiple nations around the world, I would highlight three, China, Russia, and the United States. But, there’re plenty in Europe as well for example. As well as other areas of the world, have clearly not only identified this as both an opportunity and concern. But, they are allocating resources against it, and they are developing strategies for how they’re going to actually develop it and ultimately employ the technology.
Yuval: What would happen in your opinion, if say, China now had a working quantum computer that’s much more capable of what the US has.
Mike: Like so many technologies, it’s not the technology that is inherently evil or bad, it’s how it’s used. Take a look at nuclear. We have actually seen nuclear weapons used against people twice. That same technology of nuclear fusion has been used to also not only generate weapons, but generate propulsion. I’m not trying to minimize the application of nuclear weapons in any way. My only point is, it’s not much technology that’s inherently evil. It’s the way man chooses to employ it. And so, I think quantum is going to be a little bit of the same. If used in some ways, it could be very destabilizing, could offer a set of advantages that some nations that perhaps don’t have the capacity or capability might find threatening, or might feel put in at a significant disadvantage. We’ll have to see how it actually develops. We’ll have to see how it actually plays out and how it’s actually used.
What I hope is this technology becomes broadly available. It’s not unique to one particular nation state. I, I would argue that it’s not unique to the US. I’d like to see it applied broadly because I think it has the potential to really benefit societies around the world. I’d like to see that benefit spread around. Even as I acknowledge there are applications for this technology that some would view as threatening or destabilizing.
Yuval: You mentioned that countries are investing large sums of money in developing the technology. China has been said to, to invest ten billion dollars. The US through various congressional acts has put several billion dollars there. But of course, the systems are completely different. China, you see more of a centralized government approach and here more distributed, more free enterprise. Do you think that quantum computing in the US should be more of a Manhattan project style national program, or just let industry do its role?
Mike: One of my takeaways is if you look at China, you’re seeing a very integrated, nationally driven strategy that is aligning their academic and educational capabilities with their governmental research and national lab capabilities with their state espionage capabilities to steal critical information with some of their private state owned industry companies, as well as some private companies within China. I’m watching a very integrated approach to this. That’s giving them scale and it’s giving them some measure of speed. In the US and I would argue other nations, traditionally, our model has been, the government gets out of the way, and it is the power of the private sector that has enabled innovation, that has enabled the US, its economy, and many of its companies to out compete their competitors, so to speak. To generate capability faster, at a better price point, with more efficiency and effectiveness, that’s just generating a market for it. And leading to these large, large, global companies. That’s been the model in the US, for the last 70 years.
My question gets to be: that works when the playing field is level. But, what do you do when your competition, for example, is willing to apply the capacities of the government to generate advantage for companies that our companies compete against; Is willing to use its espionage capabilities to steal technology that will be critical to the development of quantum technology and is then providing what it has stolen from others to its industries.
That, to me means “Guys, we’re not playing on a level playing field.” So we in the US, I think, need to step back and rethink our approach a little bit. I’m not arguing that the answer is, “Well, the government in the US should lead everything.” That has not proven to necessarily be a positive experience in terms of government’s ability to develop massive capabilities in a compressed timeframe within a defined budget. That traditionally just has not necessarily worked well. However, I do think there’s a need for a different partnership between the government and the private sector in the US with respect to some key technologies. I would argue quantum is one of those key technologies.
Yuval: The government certainly played a role, whether via incentives or other ways in encouraging industry. We see this in electric vehicles where there are tax credits and subsidies. We saw that with COVID vaccines, where the government said, we’re going to buy hundreds of millions of doses, even if we don’t know at the time of purchase that they work.
Yuval: If you were advising policy makers in the US today and maybe you are, what would you advise them to do about quantum computing?
Mike: I do a couple things. Number one, we need an ongoing dialogue between government, private industry, as well as the academic and research world about what are we seeing with respect to the development of quantum? What are the challenges? What are the bottlenecks? Because, if you can identify the challenges and the bottleneck, then you can ask yourself, “Okay, so how do we overcome them? In overcoming them, what role might the private sector play? What role might the government play? What role might the academic and research worlds play?” So, number one, I’d encourage this dialogue with the view that the dialogue leads to the identification of both opportunities, as well as challenges. And then, the parties ask themselves, “How can we use our respective capabilities to both maximize those opportunities as well as overcome those challenges?”
Secondly, Government tends to spend a lot of time in my experience thinking about what kind of regulatory or legal regimes do I need to put in place and what kind of conduct or activities do I want to outlaw or ensure don’t happen? That’s a good thing.
But, I would add in this, I would also be asking myself, and this would be my second thing. What can government do to incentivize outcomes? You highlighted several. I think we underestimate at times, the government’s impact in incentivization. It is amazing what can come out of the government’s use of its tax structure. You’re saying, as you pointed out in the legislative arena, the Congress decided that technology increased investment in key areas is a priority, is important, is an area that we perhaps have not done as much as we should have, or need to have, in the last several year. And therefore is looking at how do we create new investment today? You’ve seen that in quantum. You’ve seen that in semiconductors, for example. Again, I think those are good things.
But the idea of, what can government do to incentivize. Because there is no doubt. The real power here is taking advantage of what’s in the private sector. I’m not trying to minimize government’s capabilities or its role in all this. But the real engine here I think, that gets us to where we want to be, is the private sector. And therefore I always ask myself, so what can the government do to help incentivize that? What can the government do to help them overcome challenges? What can the government do to help them maximize opportunities? As opposed to the government saying, “We know the right answer. We’re going to do this ourselves.” I’m not sure that’s the smartest approach.
Yuval: In arms control, there is ITAR, right? International Traffic in Arms Regulation. Are you advocating for “QTAR”, a quantum version of this?
Mike: One of the things I think is, as you look at the implications of technology, increasingly you are seeing technologies develop that have both significant national security, which is really what ITAR was developed. To address national security concerns, for example, about who else has access to this technology. Who might take this technology and use it for bad purposes or use it to create harm. What’s happening of late is not only those concerns, but you’re also starting to think about the economic impact. If we lose control of this technology, does it put us at significant, not just national security disadvantage, but does it put us at significant economic disadvantage? And so you’re starting to see thoughts of, do we need to expand the concept of ITAR? Do we need to think beyond just what do we need to control in terms of its proliferation, so to speak, or availability to other entities outside the United States.
We need to think about what does an ITAR framework look like in the world of today and tomorrow. Do we need to think a little bit more broadly? You see this playing out with CFIUS for example, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. We created this mechanism in the US government 30 years ago, because we were concerned about foreign entities buying up or requiring US companies and their associated intellectual property, which was then going to provide them with… We were concerned about national security. Now, I think you’re seeing this play out in some legislation on the Hill as well in the US where this idea of CFIUS is not just about somebody buying a company to access intellectual property or capacity or capability that we’re concerned about from a national security perspective. What about from an economic advantage in a technology perspective? And so, I think you’re broadly seeing this trend play out in a lot of different ways, which I think is a smart thing to step back and take a look at it.
Yuval: As we get close to the end of our conversation, I wanted to ask you about two quick topics. The first one is workforce development. What should companies, or the government do to make sure that there’s more quantum capable workforce that can actually deliver on these promises of quantum computing?
Mike: How can we incentivize universities, individuals, and companies to invest more, or in the case of individuals, view quantum and view technology as areas worthy of their time in educational focus? You saw this go back 50 years in the 1960s. I was a little boy then, but as I look back on it, I can remember everything was about math and engineering and it was largely all tied to the space program, as an example. We need more mathematicians. We need more engineers. If we’re going to get into space, if we’re going to view not just the moon and the broader set planets and the solar system. But, if man is going to lead the earth, we need more mathematicians. We need more engineers. It interesting to watch the dynamics about how that played out.
There was a cultural sense of, this is a good thing. It’s worthy of your time and energy. You saw more capacity developed in universities. You saw companies willing to invest in supporting those programs, as well as getting many of their own hires into those programs. I wonder in some ways, what’s the equivalent today? How do we energize our human capital to the idea that, technical education, the ability to operate and work in a very technically focused world is a foundational positive and we want to try to maximize that. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing, we have to turn every individual out there into a data scientist or into a quantum physicist. That’s not going to clearly going to be the answer. But like most things in life, as important as technology is, technology in the end is always underpinned by the human capital that actually develops it, that actually monetize it, that actually employs it. Even as we’re focusing on the technology, we cannot forget the human element in all this.
Yuval: We spoke a lot about the dark side, cracking encryption and export controls and so on. But as we go to the promise of quantum computing, what application are you most excited about, that you think quantum computers can help with? Even the smaller ones, not the 20 years out, but something that maybe could come in the next decade.
Mike: For me, first of all on the high end, the hardest problems, the ones that have the most data with most variables and the highest rate of change. I look at those problems and I go, “Wow. Quantum is so uniquely positioned to help us address those challenges in a way that current computational capability is somewhat limited.” So I look at problems like commercial grade encryption. Can we increase its strength?” I look at weather. I look at cancer or things associated with human genes, and I think, “Wow, amazing. Think of what we could do on the medical side.” More recently, in terms of the near term, I think quantum offers us the opportunity to do some things that we take for granted right now, in a faster, even more efficient way. I view that as that’s somewhat the hidden impact of quantum. It won’t jump out necessarily as, “Oh, this is something new. This is something we’ve never done.”
There’s an element of quantum to me, that will be very much, “We’re going to take what we do and we’re going to do it faster. We’re going to do it in a more precise way.” And in some ways we won’t even recognize that, that’s one of the impacts, or at least not as gradually, let’s say.
Yuval: Admiral Mike Rogers, think you so much for joining me today.
Mike: Yuval, thank you very much. Enjoyed the conversation. You have a great day.
About “The Qubit Guy’s Podcast”
Hosted by The Qubit Guy (Yuval Boger, our Chief Marketing Officer), the podcast hosts thought leaders in quantum computing to discuss business and technical questions that impact the quantum computing ecosystem. Our guests provide interesting insights about quantum computer software and algorithm, quantum computer hardware, key applications for quantum computing, market studies of the quantum industry and more.
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Originally published at https://www.classiq.io.