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Take this $715,000 and find security gaps in quantum computers, says NSF

Yes, the ones that don't exist yet

America's National Science Foundation has signaled yet again how important it thinks quantum computing is with a six-figure grant to Penn State. 

The $715,000 grant is heading to Swaroop Ghosh, associate professor at Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ghosh plans to use the funding to close gaps in quantum computing security and create a post-secondary quantum computing curriculum.

Despite the fact that the world has yet to build a viable one, or perhaps because of it, the NSF has been heavily involved in quantum computing research lately. The Penn State grant is just the latest in a series of academic quantum computing investments the foundation has made; by backing Ghosh, the US government agency again indicates it is serious about building a base of research from which a quantum future can grow. 

When Ghosh talks about gaps in quantum computing security, he's not talking about the use of quantum computers to break today's traditional encryption systems. He's actually trying to get to the heart of a problem with the security of quantum computers themselves. 

Properly scaled quantum computers used in real-world applications will inevitably contain intellectual property and proprietary software, Ghosh said this week. "Unprotected quantum circuits could lose sensitive intellectual property and present significant security concerns," he added.

Show me the money

The first portion of the grant, $500,000 spread over three years, will go toward that purpose. Ghosh plans to focus on multi-tenant security in quantum computing, and finding ways in which malware can be injected, systems tampered with, and so on by miscreants. 

If Ghosh and his team find any quantum computing weaknesses, they plan to develop defenses at the circuit and system level that will be commercially available for use with quantum computing optimization software. 

The remaining portion of the grant is a two-year $215,000 allotment for developing a university-level quantum computing program with a focus on quantum computing and cybersecurity threats. 

Although there isn't a single quantum computer – that we know of – in the world capable of breaking encryption in general use today, the US Department of Homeland Security doesn't seem to consider it a hypothetical: it put out quantum computing security risk guidance in late 2021. 

Of the security risks posed by quantum computing, the most well-known one is its ability to render most of today's cryptography moot. Whether or not quantum computers will actually be able to do so is still up for debate, but one thing is clear: the US government and its concerned agencies seem to think we will.

In 2020, the NSF split $9.75m between 13 universities for quantum computing research. The 13 awards that went to Columbia, Harvard, Tufts, and others all funded fellowships and faculty positions specializing in quantum computing.

"Doing so will accelerate advances in quantum computing, communication and sensing, including the transition of knowledge and technologies to practice," The NSF said. ®

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