Two decades ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was founded as a U.S. government agency. It has come a long way in scope and capabilities since then. In this series, I have the fortune to interview some of the pioneers who participated in forming the first leadership of DHS. Many, if not most, of those leaders have continued to work in the homeland security and national security arena since those early days. The following interview is with Bob Liscouski, the first Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at DHS. Bob is now at the forefront of quantum technologies and is running a company that aims to keep the United States secure in the face of emerging technologies and threats.
Chuck: Can you speak about your background and your unique role in helping establish the Department of Homeland Security?
Bob: I was indeed honored to be selected as the first Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the formation of DHS in 2003. I believe I was selected because of my background in both government and the private sector in both operational and policy roles. Previously I had been a Special Agent with the Diplomatic Security Service (“DSS”) which gave me an opportunity to observe the U.S. government’s operations across Executive Branch agencies as well as with our foreign partners. I left DSS mid-career to pursue an opportunity in the private sector, which allowed me to understand not just how businesses operated but, more importantly, how businesses and governments operated together, what worked and what didn’t work and why. During my time in the private sector, I was selected to join the CIA’s Advance Technology Panel which ultimately transformed into the Intelligence Science Board (“ISB”), advising the Director of National Intelligence. The ISB was a panel composed of business leaders, academics, and technology thought leaders to provide insight into the intelligence community on evolving technologies that could threaten or aid the U.S. in its mission areas. In addition, while serving on the ISB, I was also the Director of Information Assurance for The Coca-Cola Company. This blend of experience at these various levels of government and industry helped prepare me for what was arguably one of the greatest challenges I faced in my career, helping to establish DHS and, particularly, the Infrastructure Protection function at DHS which has now evolved into the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”).
Chuck: What is your current role? Can you tell us about your company?
Bob: When I left DHS, I returned to the private sector to pursue my passion of applying technologies to complex problem areas and engaged in several startups. About five years ago, along with my other co-founders, we started Quantum Computing Inc. as a public company that is now listed on the NASDAQ: QUBT. I became the CEO of Quantum Computing Inc (“QCI”), which was established with the goal of helping businesses harness the power of the emerging quantum computing market. At that time, interest in quantum hardware was largely found within the academic research and development world and had only just begun to be of curiosity within the business community. While quantum research had been around for decades, it was regarded then (and still is by some today) as a research project. However, as it is in the technological world, research technology transforms and becomes real-world technology only once it is in the hands of users trying to solve real problems. That became QCI’s mission – to bring quantum computing to end users – to democratize quantum technology. Since forming QCI in 2018, the company has built a software platform that connects end users, business, academic, and others to a number of quantum computers (IonQ, DWave, Rigetti and others) without the need for expensive and high-level quantum programmers that is usually required to run problems on quantum computers. The challenge we faced was that the quantum computers we connected to could not deliver any business benefit and were a long way off from providing any quantum advantage. So, the market and users were frustrated with the inability of quantum technologies to live up to the high expectations vendors were hoping to achieve. However, in mid-2022 we made a strategic decision to acquire QPhoton, a startup hardware company that had developed an approach to use photonics to build a room-temperature quantum computer. Since we made that acquisition, we haven’t looked back and QCI has transformed into a “full stack quantum solutions” company solving real-world problems, today, with its quantum technologies.
Chuck: What do you envision as the most significant future impacts on technological transformation with the advent of Quantum Computing?
Bob: The great thing about technology is that whatever we think as significant will be eclipsed by those who aren’t constrained by biases or limitations imposed by conventional thinking. I truly believe the most significant implications will be realized by those students who are in elementary, middle, and high schools today. Our children represent the greatest resource and hope for how technology will be used in the future – their discoveries will surpass our dreams. That said, based on our current framework and understanding of technology, we believe the greatest impacts will be in the medical, military, and business domains. QCI has a rich portfolio of quantum technologies. Our quantum solutions go beyond just computing and include quantum sensing, quantum imaging, and quantum cybersecurity. Data analysis and particularly Artificial Intelligence is another area that QCI’s technology will have a significant impact on. AI has been around for many decades in one form or another, but it has only been in the past 10 years or so has AI begun to make the true advancements people predicted long ago. Much of that is due to the proliferation of data and to the more ubiquitous availability of advanced computing resources. However, even these have limits that will be overcome by quantum computers. QCI’s ability to meet real-world requirements today is truly exciting. In 2023 we expect to develop key partnerships to aggressively pursue these markets.
Chuck: There is much ambiguity on the status of Quantum Computing. And there is also a variety of material science approaches and technologies that can be used for quantum pursuits. Are we nearing a quantum computing capability?
Bob: There is much debate about when quantum computing will achieve “supremacy”. This is a marketing notion more than a true measure of quantum capability. We have seen announcements by some in this space about their quantum achievements that prove a quantum computer can calculate certain problems that classical computers cannot. The issue with that is the problems that were used to demonstrate these supremacy claims are problems that were either invented for the demonstration or are so arcane and removed from any business value that no one really cares. Quantum advantage is usually the term that the industry accepts as a good description for useful quantum, but even that will be problem or domain specific. The answer to this question can be confusing to both quantum experts and laypersons alike.
Let’s talk a bit about how quantum systems in nature work. Quantum systems are naturally“open,” meaning they interact with the many degrees of freedom in the environment. As a result,the wave functions collapse due to this interaction, which is the point where quantuminformation is lost. It’s the reason that measuring a quantum state, aka an interaction with theenvironment, causes the collapse of the processing so that the data and computation are lost.That’s why today’s NISQ computers are designed to produce closed quantum systems in pristinequantum states that are isolated from the environment. This is to minimize this interaction sinceit causes significant processing challenges for these architectures.You see, to create and maintain stability of the pristine closed system, there is a significantengineering cost in the design requirements to protect quantum information from theenvironment (aka noise). This is why quantum computers usually require cryogenic cooling, purevacuum, and zero electromagnetic background. All of which introduces high cost, complexmaintenance, and ongoing stability issues.We’ve all heard questions about whether quantum computing is real (it is) as a result of thelimitations of these early architectures.
The reality is that NISQ computers:
- Have limited qubit scale, which limits the size and complexity of the problems they can process.
- Are extremely expensive to build and maintain due to the extreme environmental demands.
- Are error prone even at small scale.
- Lack stability due to decoherence, which collapses the quantum space.
As of today, these systems have been able to process small “toy” problems. Specifically, a problem of 127 variables for gate-model systems and up to 400 variables for sparse matrix problems on a quantum annealer. The computations can take hours to complete and may be interrupted as the systems lose coherence. Additionally, these closed systems are still extremely prone to errors. One paper estimates that every logical qubit will require 1,000 to 10,000 qubits for error correction alone. At the end of the day, users only care about getting better answers to the complex problems they need to solve, not which computer or what type of computer will provide it.
Chuck: Can you explain what photonic quantum computing entails and areas it can impact in terms of performance, innovation, problem solving, and data analytics?
Bob: Entropy Quantum Computers (“EQC”) like ours and others’ reverse the conventional quantum computing approach, which attempts to control the computing environment by eliminating noise, temperature fluctuations and other naturally occurring environmental factors. Our approach leverages the most fundamental quantum physics in a quantum photonic hardware system. EQC systems do not view the environment as the enemy. In fact, they embrace the environment as fuel for faster, scalable, more precise, and error-free quantum processing. Instead of trying to isolate qubits from environments, the EQC carefully engineers the environment and its backaction to cause the system to evolve into desirable states, including those giving the lowest energy of a certain Hamiltonian (aka the ground state). As such, Entropy Quantum Computing is rooted in the openness of natural quantum systems. The EQC does not try to eliminate interaction with the environment. It uses controlled feedback from the environment to drive the quantum information results. Sometimes, the EQC evolves the quantum system into a decoherence sub-space, where its quantum state is highly immune to loss or decoherence. Consequently, the EQC can scale to solve larger and more complex problems without errors, can be deployed in a simple blade/rack server with no special infrastructure, and can maintain stability/coherence for lengthy time periods. We have developed Dirac1, Entropy Quantum Computer that operates at room temperature solving optimization problems with over 11,000 variables. In sum, EQC is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than other type of quantum computing approaches.
Chuck: The threat of decryption of data, especially the vast amounts of stolen sensitive intel and IP that potentially can be utilized by the Chinese, poses a real cybersecurity threat. How can we protect sensitive data from quantum computing breakthroughs via quantum computing?
Bob: Readers of HS Today are likely very familiar with the threat that quantum computing presents to cybersecurity. Much has been written about the threat to encryption and that nation-state adversaries will be able to access our most sensitive secrets. This is a very real concern and quantum companies are working hard to counter this threat. The best way to offset the quantum decryption threat is with quantum capabilities. In applying quantum solutions to cybersecurity, we have developed a truly random quantum random number generator, a key component to encryption and simulations. We also have a patent for anew photonic chaos chip (Physical Unclonable Function Chip) that provides physical one-way function that is embedded in devices or chips to provide unique authentication “fingerprint” for the user. Using quantum solutions, a PUFChip will help ensure secure communications and transactions through authentication and encryption.
Chuck: How can the West win the Quantum Technology race as it will likely be a key factor for national security readiness and geopolitical stability?
Bob: Great question. The U.S. needs to take and maintain the lead in quantum technologies – it is a national security imperative. I think the first thing we need to do is to recognize that we actually might not be ahead of our adversaries. Clearly, I don’t have insight into what the U.S. strategy might be at a classified level, but from what I see in the non-classified world of our government, we don’t have a comprehensive strategy that is driving our approach. Lately we have seen significant funding incentives sponsored by Congress and those go a long way to addressing the issue. But Congress is not an Executive Agency and, though it can influence action through the power of the purse, we need the Executive Branch to step up and take leadership. Right now, virtually all the innovation is coming from the private sector and that is good, but we need to continue to create a strong bond of collaboration between the two. One of the changes I have seen lately is that the U.S. government has begun working with the U.S. private sector to help drive actual use cases and applications for quantum technology vs. focus on just research as they had previously. As I stated in the beginning of our interview, end users will drive technology to its practical uses – researchers will only show “the art of the possible.” Practical end users will show “the reality of the possible” and more importantly they will show the reality of those things thought to be impossible.
We also need to focus on developing our (U.S.) own workforce. It is no accident that most of the students in the hard sciences at the Ph.D. level are from other countries, predominantly Asia. We need to start training and education programs in the K-12 grades to bring up our own organic talent to take on our future technological research, development, and applications.
While there are many technologies critical to the security and prosperity of the U.S., I don’t think there is any debate that quantum technologies are in the top five of that list.
Chuck: What are the plans for your company in the near and long term in addressing the digital challenges facing both industry and government?
Bob: QCI’s roadmap for our quantum future is robust. We are planning on building our own photonic quantum computing chip at scale and we are working with state partners to apply for funding from the recently authorized CHIPS and Science Act. We currently manufacture our own photonic chips in a contract lab for the few that we need. But our plans are to use our chips to power all of our technologies and for that we need our own dedicated fab. Building photonic chips is not like existing chip manufacturing. Though much of the infrastructure is the same, we use a different process using Lithium Niobate for our photonics. Our immediate road map also includes the miniaturization of our existing desktop quantum computer to the size of an iPhone that can be plugged into the back of a classical computer. This will create a hybrid quantum and classical computer that will offer significant advantages to the industry. We are in a great position in the marketplace. We have demonstrable and real technology that provides true quantum solutions to problems – today. I have a “high-class” challenge – no one really knows Quantum Computing Inc. or our acronym QCI. We have accurate and affordable technology that can rapidly solve complex serious problems today and it is one of our top goals for 2023 to make certain that the world knows it.
Chuck: Thank you, Bob, for an inspiring interview and for your career service toward the homeland security mission.