Quantum Consortium aims to keep U.S. research on pace

The new group allows participating companies to communicate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology about research needs without revealing proprietary secrets.

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology earlier this year announced plans for a consortium to support the development of a quantum computing industry. Carl Williams, the deputy director of NIST's Physical Measurement Laboratory, outlined the new group's goals at a Nov. 2 meeting of the Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board.

One unusual aspect of quantum is that private industry is already investing large amounts of money into the technology, despite the likelihood that a fully viable quantum computer is still two to three decades away. That reflects a consensus that quantum truly is a revolutionary technology that will "change how we do things," Williams said.

Companies that miss out on such pivot points "go belly up," he noted. "With revolutionary [technologies] we have a problem. … We need to be aboard the boat when that boat leave port."

The Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QEDC) is intended to ensure that neither industry nor government organizations miss that boat. The consortium, which is a partnership between NIST and SRI International, held its second meeting last week in Boulder, Colo., and elected its governing board.

So far 34 companies have signed letters of intent to join, Williams said. Roughly one-third of those firms are smaller companies, while two-thirds are large-scale corporations.

The consortium will allow these companies to let NIST know what they need to move their research forward without revealing all their proprietary secrets. If there is an instrument or material that could acclereate the research, NIST could help these companies find it. The federal government also could play a role in developing the quantum talent pool, Williams said.

Quantum is showing signs of its potential, said ISPAB Chair Christopher Boyer, the assistant vice president for global public policy at AT&T.

"Quantum computing comes up as a major underlying technology that will enable other things that we want to do, particularly around security" and cryptography, artificial intelligence and other technologies, Boyer said.

This is also an issue that has attracted interest in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in September introduced the National Quantum Initiative Act , which passed the House but has not made much progress in the Senate. The legislation would create a 10-year National Quantum Initiative Program to help "accelerate development of quantum" technology, according to the bill's text.

Williams agreed that China was spending much more on quantum than the United States, but he said it's not necessary to match that funding. Spending smarter could be enough to keep up with China, he said.

While a fully functioning quantum computer may be decades away, current research shows nearer-term potential for certain sensing and imaging applications. The same techniques that would speed up computation could lead to better imaging of brain waves and other things, Williams suggested.

"The game is on," he said.

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