Nobody truly understands God – or quantum, says former national security adviser

The race towards so-called quantum supremacy is well and truly underway, but there is a long way to go before we get there – and judging by the wide range of scientific methods for working with qubits, there are many routes one might take as well.

Qubits – basic units of quantum information – are the essential component required for quantum computing, but there are a variety of competing methodologies for working with them. The frontrunners appear to be superconducting transmon qubits, as developed by IBM, and trapped-ion quantum computing, which rival firms such as Quantinuum are focusing their efforts on.

But other less well-known technologies are also gaining ground. One of these is photonic quantum computing, which, unlike its more celebrated counterparts, does not require sub-space temperatures. One purveyor of this type is Quantum Computing Inc. (QCI), whose CEO, Robert Liscouski, hails from a diverse professional background.

Formerly the Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, Liscouski has gone from using intelligence analysis to combat the terrorist threat in the early part of the century to overseeing the use of data in a rather different though no less important way: as head of QCI, he is responsible for making sure the technological breakthroughs its team of scientists come up with are put to beneficial, practical, use.

That isn’t as easy a task as it may sound, with Quantinuum recently acknowledging that once quantum computers surpass the ‘classical’ non-qubit variety we have used for decades, their computations will have to be taken on trust until human beings develop other ways of corroborating them.

Cybernews sat down with Liscouski to talk about quantum’s potential future applications and the impact it could have on national security, education, and even human belief systems.

Do you agree with other experts, such as Quantinuum’s CEO Ilyas Khan, who is reasonably confident that in time, a consensus of informed opinion will arise within the industry to resolve issues such as how one assesses the findings of quantum computers once they surpass the classical variety we currently use to measure them?

There is an element here of the achievable versus what future quantum technology brings to us. If we look at the future of quantum computing in the context of things that have yet to be solved, it's sort of in discovery mode.

We're looking at solutions to problems that are difficult to solve: we know what those general answers are and if we're going to be doing better than the prevailing capabilities. I tend to look at things much more practically [rather] than try to apply terms like quantum supremacy or advantage. I don't think those are necessarily good terms to use in the industry because they create a false expectation in terms of what quantum computing can do.

Start small: do we have known answers to problems that we can compare ourselves against? And then beyond that, from a practical standpoint, do those answers actually work? Do they achieve the things we're looking to achieve? At the end of the day, people aren't going to buy an aspirational tool, they're going to buy a practical tool: what can we do with these technologies today?

You’ve talked about the democratization of this technology in previous interviews, by which I suppose you mean making it affordable and accessible to businesses. How far down the chain do you see this going: are we talking about anyone that could benefit from quantum getting access to it in the near future, or will there be a crooked path to walk before it attains that universality?

I think the latter. This is something I talk about pretty confidently: we have the ability to create our own quantum chips in photonics. There's a premise here, that you have to believe photonic quantum computing actually provides some of these advantages. This is sort of the religious aspect of these discussions: you have these [differing] schools of thought.

Game-model computing, maybe they consider themselves more purist: I don't know that that's necessarily the case. But when we get pushback for what we do, that's because photonic quantum computing isn't as well understood or mainstream. I don't try to compare our company to what IBM or others are doing – I go back to the solutions side, can we solve problems that have this material benefit?

If we continue that perspective, I would suggest that the approach we're taking will provide a more affordable and accessible quantum computer. We ultimately want to put a quantum computer on a chip. And we have the ability to do that. So those things will, by definition, make them more accessible and affordable. We envision a time in which we can put a quantum computer into a classical computer by virtue of the fact that we plug it into an Ethernet port or some other data transport that allows you to do that.

"We ultimately want to put a quantum computer on a chip. And we have the ability to do that. Those things will, by definition, make them more accessible and affordable."

Robert Liscouski, CEO of QCI and former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security

So this would be a portable device that, theoretically, you or I could purchase and plug into a pre-existing classical machine?

Or you can use it independently. Right now the desktop quantum computer that we use is an entropy quantum computer. But that's just one aspect of it. We're already doing problems with several thousand qubits, error-corrected. It's a machine that doesn't require any of the cryogenic cooling because it's photonic and just requires basic AC power.

If you don't require cryogenics to stabilize the qubits and thus make them usable, what is your alternate method for achieving that?

The cryogenic approach, the game model, and the superconducting computers require a stable environment to allow atoms to be positioned appropriately, so you can do the computing that you need to. And because they're inherently unstable, you need these vibration-proof, soundproof, cryogenically cooled environments, and you need a lot of them so you can do the error-correcting. Because noise, and the environment, is not their friend.

In our case, because we use photonics, noise is our friend. In fact, we would not be able to compute in the environments that they do – like they can't compute in the environments that we do. What we argue is quantum computing is all around us – everything we're doing, everything you look at from the space around us, effectively is quantum, and so we take advantage of that environment.

Drawing on your background with the US Department of Homeland Security, how do you see the escalating cyberwar and quantum's impact on that? Do you think the big upgrade to render all of our devices quantum-ready in terms of cybersecurity will simply be a case of running to stand still?

With or without quantum, the escalation of cyber warfare and exploitation is an existential threat. This world is a connected world: absolutely everything we do is exploitable at some level, depending on who and what their motives are. As ridiculous as this sounds, the notion of my hard drive being fried because it inadvertently got subjected to water is a major pain, even with sufficient redundancy. Because we're so dependent on these systems, and the barrier to entry into the cyberwarfare environment is so low. The attack surfaces are vast.

Now even printers can be hacked, the options for threat actors are neverending, it seems...

It is neverending. And then, on top, you put these technologies of nation-state ability to do things in a way that you wouldn't even know you're hacked. The whole notion about quantum decryption and the fact that you'll never know your secrets have been broken. Let's face it, some of our adversaries are sucking up every bit of data they can and storing it, knowing that eventually, they'll be able to crack it. And we keep [state] secrets 25, 50 years – sometimes they can never be declassified. And if you can gain that, somebody's going to have a field day with it.

The thing that scares me, looking at this from a national security standpoint, is that quantum computing has the ability to bring technological advances. When we had just the nuclear concerns, well, not everybody could gain access to materials. But when it comes to the cyber stuff, all you have to do is have an insider and pay them well enough or have some leverage over them: you can have that technology. We see that happening in this space, that really is worrisome. And I don't have a good answer for it – I don't think there is a good answer. It's the world we're living in, and we're just going to have to be a lot better than our adversaries are.

And it's not just cyber warfare. How do you leverage artificial intelligence, quantum, and machine learning together? It's a real concern. Even if it's not the next ten years, it's going to be the next twenty or thirty, and if you've got kids you should be worried about what their future looks like, because I am. It's not hyperbole. I think we're arrogant if we don't take a more humble view toward that – these technologies are going to have a significant impact on us.

"It's not just cyber warfare. How do you leverage artificial intelligence, quantum, and machine learning together? It's a real concern [...] and if you've got kids you should be worried about what their future looks like, because I am."

Robert Liscouski, CEO of QCI and former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security

It seems like the picture you're painting compared to Illyas – who said if we're lucky, quantum computing might lift the veil on reality – is slightly more phlegmatic.

Yeah, it is. That's because it's from a security point of view and not from the optimistic: when you work in the security world, you're working to prevent things you can't prove never happened. And therefore the perspective is you're looking at scenarios that are within the art of the possible – but frequently never do occur.

After 9/11, we all said the world has changed. But we actually forced that change, not necessarily al-Qaeda. They took down the World Trade Center and attacked us with very low-technology approaches – [but] we changed the world ourselves with the reaction we had to that. I'm not suggesting that we did it badly, but we changed that world.

We ramped up security everywhere we went, and waited for that other shoe to drop – because that's what we were expecting. We thought the world had changed, and in fact it really didn't – not on the magnitudes that we thought. And I was right in the center of that, I was the guy responsible for infrastructure protection, I had to look at all the threats: government, private sector, everything in between. We were so vulnerable.

We would wait for something to happen: attack on a chemical plant, a nuclear power plant, soft-target attacks, the use of gases or viral agents. We had all these scenarios. And when you sit back and look at them from the point of view I did, any one of them can be affected relatively easily. A lot of times you say, what's the world of the possible? Here are the outliers, what's the in-between? All that stuff was things that could have been done – but it never happened.

And now, more than half a year into overt hostilities in Ukraine, awaiting that Russian response, it feels kind of similar, wondering when that major infrastructure cyberattack will happen. Do you think it's inevitable that people will overreact to security threats?

You don't know; [at the time] you don't have perfect information. You always act upon the best intelligence you have – you try to vet it, to make sure you have some fidelity around that information. And then you have to make a decision, knowing that as soon as you do, you're going to come up with better data than you had before you made it. It's inevitable – you buy a car, you find out that you probably could have bought [it at] a better price somewhere else. You can't control that environment.

When it comes to the threat spectrum, you have to make a decision based upon what you know; you're under pressure to do the right thing. And sometimes that means making decisions, sometimes that means doing nothing. But at the end of the day, you only have the information you have. That's the trouble, you can do all these predictions with these scenarios, various predictive results – a human being still has to decide what to do based upon the information. That's not going to change; we're always going to make mistakes. And when you look at the worst-case scenario, even if you ratchet that down a few levels, the less-worse scenario is still a bad case. So you still have to take the appropriate protections against that: you have an obligation to do that.

As a consequence, we don't have that ability to have that perfect environment: if I push this button and turn this lever, this is going to be the outcome. Because there's a million other factors going around. So I do think we're victims of our own thinking. We have a tendency to overthink because the scenario is there and you say: I don't know, it could be pretty bad, we've got to do the right thing.

And then you find out we spent all that money – and nothing happened. Did we spend the money and nothing happened, or did nothing happen because we spent the money? You don't know those answers – that's the conundrum that in the security world you always have to answer to. It's the [1930s pioneer quantum mechanics experiment] Schrödinger's Cat example: nothing happens until you observe it, and then once you observe it the outcome is apparent.

"You only have the information you have. That's the trouble, you can do all these predictions with [...] various predictive results - a human being still has to decide what to do based upon the information. That's not going to change; we're always going to make mistakes."

Robert Liscouski, CEO of QCI and former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security

What you’re saying about security in general does seem to tie in with the deterministic-versus-probabilistic paradigm around quantum. Is that what drew you to it – you found the world in your previous role as an intelligence agent to be probabilistic?

I've been in data analytics all my life, even prior to computers. That was the beauty of this. People look at me and ask: how do you go from being a detective or an undercover investigator to the CEO of a quantum computing company? Well, listen, the central connection point is data: trying to get better fidelity, do better decision-making, data collection, analysis and outcomes. If there's been one common theme for everything we've been doing in the computing industry, it's pretty much about that. Quantum computing is just another iteration, or another piece in that evolutionary approach. So it is connected for me. We're all contrasted between deterministic and probabilistic outcomes.

Do you foresee quantum computers being used on a daily basis in police work?

I think the real advances are going to be coming when people start using this technology [for things] other than what we think it's going to be used for. And we want to put that into the hands of people responsibly. There's a whole arms-control component to this: it's true of any computer, not necessarily just quantum. I'd like to get this in the hands of high-school students, where the real creativity is, and let them mess around. We have a program with software to extend that with regard to quantum computers, to give students access so they can start doing things with them. There's a whole curriculum base there.

How close are you to realizing that particular project?

I'd say probably within a year or less. The NSF [National Science Foundation] is very supportive of this. It's all about the workforce development, which is a different dynamic. I'm not trying to be judgemental here in any way, but the US kids are not necessarily intellectually prepared to become quantum programmers. Most of those kids are coming out of Asia, because that's their mindset: heavy math backgrounds, very focused in terms of doing that stuff. We have to change that paradigm, get our workforce prepared to enter into this at the very early stages. We've been doing that, but I think – again, I'm not trying to sound political – the educational system has gotten off track a little bit.

Not to make them all quantum programmers; we want to make them quantum users. Let them put their creativity around being able to use a quantum computer, not program it. We're not programming C-language any more – we may have done that in the beginning, but that's a commodity now. Let other people do that stuff.

I think I see what you’re getting at. You don't need to be a car mechanic to be a driver do you?

Exactly. And don't get constrained by the people you are speaking with about quantum computing – we're all version 1.0. The next generation, they're the folks that are really going to take this to the next level. We're just the starting point. So anybody that thinks they know what they're talking about in terms of the future of quantum computing – they haven't a clue. Nobody does.

"It's an interesting shift to understand the dynamics of a God-belief system and a quantum-belief system - there's a lot more connection between those two points than you would think."

Robert Liscouski, CEO of QCI and former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security

It sounds like your industry is in a pioneer state.

It is. Our understanding of it, too. There's an interesting conversation I have with somebody I'm not going to name. I believe in God, and they don't; they're a pure quantum scientist. But when we have these late-night talks, it’s an interesting shift to understand the dynamics of a God-belief system and a quantum-belief system – there's actually a lot more connection between those two points than you would think. Because nobody understands quantum mechanics, and clearly, nobody understands God.

I'm not suggesting quantum is God, all I'm suggesting is there are a lot of things we can't explain, and it's interesting to have a conversation with somebody so scientifically oriented [and] cause them to question why they understand what they understand. They can't give that explanation – nobody can. That's a different level. We try to put it in terms we can actually understand because it's safer for us.

Do you think quantum computing will have an impact on belief systems?

I'll leave you with this thought. In the absence of answers, real clear understanding, we're always going to project what we want. That goes back to not having perfect information – I don't think we're ever going to, or if we do we're not going to believe it. When I was a kid, I used to think about the concept of this infinite universe. People start having a conversation: well, you know the universe is only so big. OK, if I buy into that theory, what's on the other side of that? How do you define it? Are you suggesting it's in a box? Because what's on the outside of that box? How do you even begin to have that conversation?

I'm not sure quantum physics is going to get us closer to that answer, but it's certainly going to be interesting. We probably couldn't have this conversation if we were sticking to the classical computer – it is finite. And that's the area of interest with quantum, it takes you beyond that into a less explained, less understood world.