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Keeping America first in quantum computing means avoiding these five big mistakes

Potential pitfalls include putting the military in charge and spraying too much money around.
June 18, 2018
Ms. Tech

After watching China overtake its lead in artificial intelligence, the US is determined to keep the global top spot in quantum technology.

Two separate pieces of legislation being floated in Congress would boost federal spending on quantum research and encourage more public-private partnerships in the field. A big focus of the legislative proposals is on quantum computing, which could eventually produce machines that make today’s most powerful supercomputer seem like an abacus.

Unlike conventional machines, which process data in bits that represent either 0 or 1, quantum computers harness quantum bits, or qubits, which can represent both values simultaneously. While adding a few extra bits to a classical computer makes a modest difference in its capability, adding a few qubits increases a quantum machine’s computational power exponentially.

The complex technology is still in its infancy, but it’s advancing fast (see “Serious quantum computers are finally here. What are we going to do with them?”). In the future, quantum technology could help researchers develop new materials, create new molecules for drugs, and produce super-powerful sensors for things like oil exploration. The technology also has big implications for national security: quantum computers could help crack even the most advanced encryption in use today, and they could create new, virtually unbreakable communication networks.

China calling

Other countries and regions have already announced ambitious plans to fund quantum activities. The European Union has launched a multi-year initiative backed by an investment of around $1.2 billion, and China is investing $10 billion to create a national laboratory for quantum information science in Hefei, due to open in 2020.

Federal funding for quantum research in America already adds up to some $200 million to $250 million a year. Thanks to this support and efforts by large companies like IBM and Google, plus startups such as Rigetti Computing and IonQ, America leads the field in many areas of quantum technology, including the computers themselves (see “Google thinks it’s close to ‘quantum supremacy.’ Here’s what that really means”). According to Patinformatics, which tracks “patent families,” or groups of patents covering specific inventions, America holds 800 of these in quantum computing—more than four times as many as China.

But China is advancing fast, notably in quantum communication: it’s already demonstrated a quantum-secured video call between Beijing and Vienna, using a special satellite. And it's advancing rapidly in quantum cryptography: Patinformatics data shows that China overtook the US on this type of patent family in 2014. That doesn’t necessarily mean the country’s technology is better, but it’s certainly a sign of how fast its expertise is evolving.

Chad Rigetti, the CEO of Rigetti Computing, who’s a strong supporter of efforts to create a US national quantum plan, notes that in AI, China started by reproducing many of the same findings achieved by US researchers and then used the experience to develop an AI workforce that’s now producing plenty of innovative ideas. Rigetti sees the country advancing fast in his own field too. “I have no doubt the same playbook is being applied in quantum,” he says.

A quantum twofer

US politicians have been working on legislation with this burgeoning rivalry in mind. A draft bill called the Quantum Computing Research Act, recently unveiled by Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator from California, would require the heads of research for the Navy and Army to set up public-private research consortia for quantum projects. These would run until 2024 and receive an unspecified amount of government funding.

Another bill is being crafted by Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The draft National Quantum Initiative Act hasn’t been published yet, but Smith has issued the broad outlines in a press release. Among other things, it would authorize the US Department of Energy to create a number of research centers where physicists, engineers, and software experts can work on projects together. It would also charge the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy with creating a panel to oversee federal efforts.

Ultimately, these bills and any other initiatives will need to be fused into a US master plan. Here are some of the mistakes that policymakers need to avoid if they want that plan to be a success:

  • Putting the military in charge. Harris’s bill aims to put the Secretary of Defense at the overall head of a quantum initiative, in coordination with the White House OSTP. This would almost certainly lead to too narrow a focus on areas like quantum cryptography and communication. These are important, but quantum technology promises much wider benefits, and the national plan should reflect that. Though the military and intelligence communities ought to have a lot of input given their long experience in quantum technology, they shouldn’t be dictating the overall strategy.
  • Being overly prescriptive about what gets funded. Quantum technology is changing so fast that any national initiative needs to be flexible: resources will have to be shifted to different projects as the field evolves. Both the Harris and Smith plans are likely to leave reasonable wiggle room for this, which is encouraging.
  • Underinvesting in workforce development. Boosting America’s quantum workforce should be a top priority, because there’s a big talent shortage in the field, and not just for building quantum machines. “It’s really difficult to hire developers who can compile software to run on quantum circuits,” says Christopher Monroe, a professor at the University of Maryland and the cofounder of IonQ. According to Smith’s press release, his bill would authorize the National Science Foundation to create research centers and courses to help develop quantum talent. The Harris bill doesn’t mention education at all.
  • Overinvesting in everything quantum. A group of academics and executives including Rigetti and Monroe published a paper earlier this year calling for an overall budget of $800 million over an initial five-year period to cover research efforts and workforce development. That would almost double the existing annual federal investment in the field.

    Neither Harris’s bill nor the press release from Smith mentions specific amounts. But a House committee aide says its current thinking includes $50 million a year for the NSF and $125 million a year for the DoE’s centers over five years, which would add up to around the number recommended by the academics and business leaders. The Smith plan envisages an additional $80 million a year for work done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on quantum standard-setting and other issues, bringing total investment to almost $1.3 billion. Perhaps the NIST work is worth all that additional money, but the case for it should be closely scrutinized.

    Whatever numbers finally get chosen, the plan’s administrators will need to ensure that the money isn’t spread too thin and doesn’t subsidize work the private sector would have done anyway.
  • Mistaking “America first” for “America only.” America doesn’t have a monopoly on expertise in quantum computing, so it’s important that any plan encourage international cooperation with other centers of excellence, like Canada, Australia, and Europe. There’s also a case for collaborating with Chinese researchers in non-sensitive fields. The current occupant of the White House might not be all that keen on China—or Canada (sorry, Mr. Trudeau)—but that shouldn’t be a reason to nix collaboration in this vital field. America needs a national plan for quantum computing, but it also needs a global mind-set to make it truly work.
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