A Look Inside the Government’s Latest Quantum Computing Efforts

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Experts say fortifying strong international collaboration is critical to advancing the emerging technology.

Though some fruits of quantum information science (think atomic clocks and CAT scan technology) are increasingly prevalent in Americans’ daily lives, there is still a great deal of progress to be made across the quantum computing space, scientific experts from government, industry and academia said in Washington Wednesday.    

At the end of last year, President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative into law, which granted more than a billion in quantum research funding and followed a large effort led by the executive and legislative branches and many others from the quantum research and development community. The initiative calls on the nation to substantially increase its reasonably expansive QIS efforts.

“So we are in the process of going through that expansion, and part of that is through the president's budget, part of that is by having individual agencies of the United States government take on expanded roles,” Jake Taylor, assistant director for quantum information science in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, said.

Taylor said the policy’s base is vast, but his team is expressly working to ensure that economic growth opportunities and opportunities for improving the world are baked into quantum policies and systems. He said they are also working with international collaborators to advance and govern the emerging technology.

“When you're taking the scientific space and you're trying to really push it forward, you're seeking the best answers around the world, and so the way you do that is by building and making strong collaborations to keep that culture of discovery moving,” Taylor said.

The assistant director said his team participated in a “wonderful dialogue” with the European Union last month and will be engaging in a workshop this summer to look further into expanding its collaboration with the EU. He said the nations fundamentally support the same “science first” approach and understanding that policies should benefit individual citizens across diverse societies.

“What I can say is that by choosing to maintain a leadership role and to work with international collaborators and to cooperate across the world, we have the opportunity to realize that and it’s up to us to maintain that strength,” Taylor said. “This is what this bill is about and what we’re up to—come back to me in seven years and I’ll have more details.”

And as for the next decade, other officials said the U.S. can expect to witness a whirlwind of progress and quantum advancements.

“We are in the late ‘40s and early 1950s of information technology, when machines were big and ugly and had lots of wires hanging off of them,” said Bob Wisnieff, chief technology officer of quantum computing at IBM Research. “At this point, we should expect rapid generations of machines, growing capabilities, and machines that, like the IBM360 in the 1960s, are better suited to machine rooms than to your wrist.”

But Wisnieff said as America moves toward the quantum advantage, experts will need to establish new fields of thought and put the right people in place to explore how the machines will evolve and influence society over time.

“We are now getting into the regime where we need to deal with a lot of the engineering challenges, because as you scale up not only will we need to continue to make scientific advances here, but we will need to develop an entire new field of engineering—how one builds these systems and constructs them and tests them and operates them on a daily basis to provide value,” he said.

While there’s a long way to go, insiders said the potential impacts of the technology will be monumental.

For example, Associate Director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium Celia Merzbacher said she sees exciting possibilities at the convergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G and other technologies connected to the internet of things.

“Some of the most exciting things that come to my mind are in the ability to optimize certain problems that will allow for driverless cars and management of these big systems of things that need to be interacting with each other,” she said. “So whether it’s on the energy grid space or transportation or the financial sector, there are applications I think that are going to blow all our minds.”