On Wednesday, the White House brainstormed with U.S. tech companies, asking their help tracking the spread of covid-19 and misinformation about the outbreak — and analyzing vast amounts of data about the virus. The White House’s proposed $4.8 trillion budget proposal last month, in contrast, isn’t so science-friendly, and cuts many aspects of scientific research.

But here’s one area where the Trump FY21 budget does include generous research funding: “industries of the future” like “artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information sciences (QIS), 5G/advanced communications, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing.”

The proposed budget earmarks nearly half a billion dollars for quantum technology, including $25 million to build a quantum Internet connecting 17 national labs. Of course, the final budget numbers and priorities will differ significantly, given the many months ahead in the federal budget approval process. But this part of the budget proposal says a great deal about the administration’s priorities.

How did a seemingly obscure field like quantum computing and communications — exploiting the mysteries of quantum physics to do things that are impossible for digital devices and networks today — become a budget priority? There’s a simple reason: The Trump administration believes quantum research is necessary for national security.

The U.S. fears falling behind China

The Trump administration, like previous ones, has prioritized funding for research they believe will help the national interest. U.S. government investment in science and technology — from interchangeable parts to the Internet — has long been the foundation of America’s economic and military might.

Yet competition with China is what really matters in this case. China named quantum informatics a key plank in its 13th Five-Year Plan and the Made in China 2025 plan — which launched China’s bid to dominate high-tech sectors. Chinese defense professionals speculate that “quantum hegemony” may determine the future of international politics.

While China has historically struggled to catch up in science, it’s the first country to achieve some important quantum milestones. These include the first quantum science satellite and a quantum network connecting Beijing and Shanghai. China is also building the world’s largest quantum laboratory.

These developments help explain why quantum technology is caught up in what the U.S. 2018 National Defense Strategy describes as “the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations.” Analysts in the West speculate about a “quantum arms race that will transform warfare” — a race that some scientists claim “America is losing.”

Policymakers have also weighed in. To Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), the “consequences of mastering quantum computing … are no less significant than those faced by the scientists who lit up the New Mexico sky with the detonation at the Trinity test site 72 years ago.” Glenn S. Gerstell, general counsel of the National Security Agency, writes that a quantum “decryption ability could render the military capabilities of the loser almost irrelevant and its economy overturned.”

But China’s not winning this race

It is clear that quantum technologies have important national security applications. Quantum computers may be able to break Internet encryption, putting all government and commercial data at risk. Yet quantum networks can also enable better encryption that is safe from this threat.

Many of the current fears of Chinese dominance and the quantum threat rely on mistaken assumptions. China has made progress in quantum communications, rather than quantum computing. These are very different technologies. Indeed, the reason China is so interested in quantum networks is because it is paranoid about its vulnerability to U.S. cyber operations.

The United States, by contrast, is undoubtedly the leader in quantum computing. In September 2019, scientists at Google and the University of California at Santa Barbara, achieved a milestone known as “quantum supremacy.” Their experimental quantum machine, known as Sycamore, ran an algorithm much faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer could simulate.

Research in quantum networking is also quite advanced in both North America and Europe. It is notable that when a Chinese foundation created a prize to recognize excellence in quantum science, only one of the 12 recipients was Chinese.

The quantum espionage threat is exaggerated

Yes, quantum technologies may sound like something from science fiction — unbreakable forms of communication and computers that can perform spooky action at a distance. It is easy to jumble different quantum technologies together as if they presented a common problem — and a common threat to national security. And it’s easy to talk in broad terms about their potential, while overlooking the limitations.

Some commentators claim that quantum computers will make digital computers obsolete. Yet quantum algorithms only provide improvements for limited range of problems. A quantum computer powerful enough to break Internet encryption will need 20 million quantum bits (qubits) — Sycamore only had 53 qubits. It may take decades to clear all the engineering hurdles. By then, most organizations will have implemented post-quantum cryptography, which provides security against both classical and quantum computers.

Yet the real obstacles are more social than technical. Even if a powerful quantum computer can be built, analyzing and applying intelligence will still be difficult — and leaders may ignore or misuse intelligence altogether. Even with quantum-safe encryption, likewise, gullible or negligent humans will still expose data.

Therefore, as my research suggests, it will still be possible to collect and protect secrets after the quantum information revolution. Political advantage depends on organizational policy and behavior, not just advanced technology. Smart policy can compensate for technological weaknesses, and poor policy can squander technological advantages.

In World War II, for example, Germany used the Enigma machine, a formidable encryption device. Yet Britain was still able to read German communications. German operators made many mistakes, and the Bletchley Park code-breaking organization was incredibly well organized.

While the national security implications of quantum technology are exaggerated, there are still many promising scientific applications. The ability to perform mathematical operations more efficiently might improve drug discovery and artificial intelligence. While quantum computing will not save us from covid-19, it might aid in research to prevent future pandemics.

Jon R. Lindsay is an assistant professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @jonrlindsay.