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A quantum showcase presents lawmakers with the technology's threats and opportunities


On Capitol Hill, bipartisan conversations about advanced technology aren't necessarily the norm, but that was exactly the goal of a recent showcase in a Senate ballroom in Washington, D.C. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin has this story.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: On a recent spring afternoon on Capitol Hill, something unusual was happening.

RYAN MCKENNEY: I think, one, this is important. This is the first time there's been, like, a full quantum industry event on the Hill.

MCLAUGHLIN: The first quantum showcase taking place right here in the Russell Senate Office Building. This is Ryan McKenney. He's with a quantum company named, appropriately, Quantinuum. There's a lot of quantum nerds here. It's noisy and boisterous. They're excited.

MCKENNEY: Quantum is here, and there's real use cases. The U.S. government is really thinking about quantum policy, whether it's cybersecurity, whether it's funding research and development.

MCLAUGHLIN: Quantum is here. It's not just this futuristic someday tech. It's here right now, and it's having its moment. In really basic language, instead of using a traditional computer, quantum science takes advantage of nature itself, the natural properties of different particles, and it uses those properties to get really precise measurements, to do complicated calculations. Even physicists are still figuring all this stuff out. But what's important is that this technology will hopefully help solve really hard problems.

Yeah. Tell me about this here. What is this?

ANDREW ATTAR: So this is a real optical clock. It's commercially available.

MCLAUGHLIN: Andrew Atar is with Vescent Photonics. He shows me what looks like a black box, but inside, it uses things like radio frequencies and lasers to measure things like gravitational waves.

ATTAR: The nature-given transitional frequency that we're using here is from an acetylene molecule.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's pretty complicated.

ATTAR: And we use this frequency comb here.

MCLAUGHLIN: But what's easier to understand is that Attar says this black box is going to help make sure satellites and planes get accurate information about their location and their environment, making them resistant to interference, whether that's caused by weather or adversaries jamming signals.

SCOTT DAVIS: So you guys are delivering it to NASA this afternoon.

MCLAUGHLIN: Scott Davis, the CEO and co-founder of Vescent. He says some of this tech is already on its way to NASA to eventually be stuck up on planes and satellites. These companies are here to talk to lawmakers about how important quantum science is, but they also acknowledge that quantum computing can pose threats, especially in the hands of adversaries. If China, for example, gets a powerful quantum computer first, they could use it to do dangerous things like breakthrough modern encryption that's being used to protect sensitive information.

One executive I spoke to, Denis Mandich, used to work for the CIA. He said he saw China stealing U.S. intellectual property left and right, and he got into the industry to try and respond to that threat we're in.

DENIS MANDICH: One of my last jobs of the agency was seeing a lot of the theft, primarily by China, of our intellectual property.

MCLAUGHLIN: But the thing is, these companies are zeroed in on the opportunities quantum provides to revolutionize industries, do complicated calculations that modern computers can't. One of the big reasons they're here in D.C. is that they're trying to reauthorize legislation that would keep the momentum going. Dr. Celia Merzbacher is the director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. She knows quantum is a hard topic, and she might lose people in the nerdy details. But at events like this, there's actually a bipartisan focus on innovation and competing with China. It could be a winning argument.

CELIA MERZBACHER: It's not that everybody has to be able to really dig in on the mathematics behind it and be a quantum expert. I think, you know, we use technology all the time, our phones and everything, without understanding exactly what's inside and how it works. So I think just appreciating what quantum is going to be able to support in the future is a great starting point, especially for policymakers.

MCLAUGHLIN: In the middle of the heated election season, maybe quantum will bring us all together if we can just understand it.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.