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The Drive to Quantum Computing

By R. Colin Johnson

July 30, 2019

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The U.S. National Quantum Initiative Act signed into law last December mandates a multi-billion-dollar, 10-year effort to build a quantum computer infrastructure, ecosystem, and workforce.

The purpose of the law is to offer federal support to the research, development, demonstration, and application of quantum information science and technology. It aims to expand the number of quantum researchers, educators, and students by promote the necessary college curriculums, establishing new facilities for research, testing, and education, coordinating governmental, industrial, and academic cooperation, and promoting the development of international standards.

The law is a milestone of bipartisan support, passing the House of representatives by a vote of 348 to 11, and passing the Senate unanimously, before being signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.

This quantum technology acceleration program was provided $1.2 billion in funding for its first five years, with additional funding promised to the most successful projects starting circa 2025.

Most of the quantum technological efforts under the National Quantum Initiative will take place up in as many as five new National Quantum Information Science Research Centers to be established by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science with five-year renewable charters of up to $25 million per year per center. The Department of Energy (DoE) will coordinate basic research in the storage, transmission, manipulation, and measurement of quantum information.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) also will fund grants through its Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education. Besides fostering the education of a U.S. quantum workforce, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also will work on developing measurement methods, standards, cybersecurity, and quantum ecosystem needs, along with a "space needs" assessment by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council is establishing a Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science. Finally, under the terms of the Act, the President is required to establish a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee.

The law requires all these programs to be staffed this year, in order to launch the 10-year initiative in 2020.

"It is critically important that the U.S. remains a vibrant and innovative player in the quantum computing space," said Robert Sorensen, chief analyst for quantum computing at market research firm Hyperion Research.  "This is not a case where if the U.S. doesn't do it, no one will. This is a case where if the U.S. doesn't do it, the U.S will be left behind."

Christopher Padilla, IBM vice president of government and regulatory affairs, said the National Quantum Initiative "provides critical investment in research and development of quantum systems, laying the groundwork for the U.S. to sustain our leadership in this groundbreaking technology and ensuring we have a workforce with the right skills to seize the opportunity."

"From all perspectives," said Intel Labs director of quantum hardware Jim Clarke, "the National Quantum Initiative Act is unifying government, industry and academic interest that will establish U.S leadership in quantum technology. Congress is already going through its appropriation process and the DoE just started requesting feedback on what its Centers should look like."

Embracing the quantum advantage requires a new supply chain starting with quantum sensors, feeding into quantum interconnects and communications, feeding into quantum accelerators for conventional digital computers, according to Christopher Savoie, CEO and cofounder of Zapata Computing Inc.  Zapata was a member of the Quantum Industry Coalition lobbying group, which calls itself "the voice of the quantum industry in the United States." Savoie is also on the governing board of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), a part of NIST's effort to build a robust quantum workforce and infrastructure .

Said Savoie, "The problem is that this is not rocket science; in fact, it is much, much harder than rocket science, because it is not based on classical physics but quantum physics, which requires a complete revamp of our educational system. Today, quantum computing advances are extremely difficult to make, even for the smartest people on the planet. Thus, to create a quantum workforce, we must determine the mathematical and physical science skills necessary to the development of quantum technologies and foster this kind of quantum literacy in our educational system."

All the major quantum computer makers—D-Wave, Honeywell, IBM, Intel, IonQ, Microsoft, and Rigetti—have embraced the National Quantum Initiative, as have quantum algorithm developers 1QBit and Zapata.

Said Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave, "Quantum computing won't happen without public and private investment. If we think about the nascent quantum workforce and the significant funding necessary to move quantum technologies from idea to production, there is no question that the National Quantum Initiative is a significant step forward in advancing robust quantum research and supporting the growth of a quantum marketplace."

Brownell added, "Hardware alone isn't enough to fuel application development. The future of quantum computing depends on a robust software ecosystem as much as it does on system development."

"The question is how quickly can we evolve our current capabilities into large enough quantum solutions to handle real-world problems," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at Linley Group, who also observed, "When people say the quantum computer is 10 years away, they mean they do not know when it is going to happen."

Hyperion's Sorensen agrees. "No one really knows what quantum computing will look like in 10 years, and indeed, the quantum computing of 20 years out may not have even been imagined yet.  A stable and continued stream of government sponsored R&D—both in U.S. labs, as well in the academic and commercials sectors—will be necessary for at least the next five to seven years, and likely much longer."

Andrew Fursman, CEO of 1Qbit, which specializes in algorithms for industry problems that are very difficult to impossible for conventional computers, described the National Quantum Initiative as "an important step in preparing the way for future universal quantum computers—especially in preparing the workforce."

R. Colin Johnson is a Kyoto Prize Fellow who has worked as a technology journalist for two decades.


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