Two Years into the Government’s National Quantum Initiative
An Office of Science and Technology Policy official offered a look back on what’s unfolded—and a glimpse into what’s to come.
Monday marked two years since the passage of the National Quantum Initiative, or NQI Act—and in that time, federal agencies followed through on its early calls and helped lay the groundwork for new breakthroughs across the U.S. quantum realm.
Now, the sights of those helping implement the law are set on the future.
“I would say in five years, something we'd love to see is ... a better idea of, ‘What are the applications for a quantum computer that’s buildable in the next five to 10 years, that would be beneficial to society?’” the Office of Science and Technology Policy Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science Dr. Charles Tahan told Nextgov in an interview Friday. He also serves as the director of the National Quantum Coordination Office—a cooperation-pushing hub established by the legislation.
Tahan reflected on some foundational moves made over the last 24 months and offered a glimpse into his team’s big-ticket priorities for 2021.
Quantum devices and technologies are among an ever-evolving field that hones in on phenomena at the atomic scale. Potential applications are coming to light, and are expected to radically reshape science, engineering, computing, networking, sensing, communication and more. They offer promises like unhackable internet or navigation support in places disconnected from GPS.
Federal agencies have a long history of exploring physical sciences and quantum-related pursuits—but previous efforts were often siloed. Signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, the NQI Act sought to “provide for a coordinated federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security” of America. It assigned specific jobs for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Energy Department and National Science Foundation, among others, and mandated new collaborations to boost the nation’s quantum workforce talent pipeline and strengthen society’s grasp of this relatively fresh area of investment. The functions of the National Quantum Coordination Office, or NQCO, were also set forth in the bill, and it was officially instituted in early 2019. Since then, the group has helped connect an array of relevant stakeholders and facilitate new initiatives proposed by the law.
“Now, everything that's been called out in the act has been established—it’s started up,” Tahan explained. He noted the three agencies with weighty responsibilities spent 2019 planning out their courses of action within their communities, and this year, subsequently launched weighty new efforts.
One of the latest was unveiled in August by the Energy Department, which awarded $625 million over five years—subject to appropriations—to its Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories to establish QIS Research Centers. In each, top thinkers will link up to push forward collaborative research spanning many disciplines. Academic and private-sector institutions also pledged to provide $340 million in contributions for the work.
“These are about $25 million each—that's a tremendous amount of students, and postdocs, and researchers,” Tahan said. “And those are spread out across the country, focusing on all different areas of quantum: computing, sensing and networking.”
NSF this summer also revealed the formation of new Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes to tackle fundamental research hurdles in quantum information science and engineering over the next half-decade. The University of Colorado, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, and University of California, Berkeley are set to head and house the first three institutes, though Tahan confirmed more could be launched next year. The initiative is backed by $75 million in federal funding—and while it will take advantage of existing infrastructures, non-governmental entities involved are also making their own investments and constructing new facilities.
“That's the foundation, you know,” Tahan said. “The teams have been formed, the research plans have been written—that's a tremendous amount of work—and now they're off actually working. So now, we start to reap the rewards because all the heavy lifting of getting people organized has been done.”
Together with NSF, OSTP also helped set in motion the National Q-12 Education Partnership. It intends to connect public, private and academic sector quantum players and cohesively create and release learning materials to help U.S. educators produce new courses to engage students with quantum fields. The work is ultimately meant to spur K-12 students' interest in the emerging areas earlier into their education, and NSF will award nearly $1 million across QIS education efforts through the work.
And beyond the government’s walls and those of academia, the NQI Act also presented new opportunities for industry. Meeting the law’s requirements, NIST helped convene a consortium of cross-sector stakeholders to strategically confront existing quantum-related technology, standards and workforce gaps, and needs. This year, that group—the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, or QED-C—bloomed in size, established a more formal membership structure and announced companies that make up its steering committee.
“It took a year or more to get all these companies together and then write partnership agreements. So, that partnership agreement was completed towards the beginning of summer, and the steering committee signed it over the summer, and now there are I think 100 companies or so who have signed it,” Tahan said. “So, it's up and running. It's a real economic development consortium—that’s a technical thing—and that's a big deal. And how big it is, and how fast it's growing is really, really remarkable.”
This fall also brought the launch of quantum.gov, a one-stop website streamlining federal work and policies. The quantum coordination office simultaneously released a comprehensive roadmap pinpointing crucial areas of needed research, deemed the Quantum Frontiers Report.
That assessment incorporates data collected from many workshops, and prior efforts OSTP held to promote the national initiative and establishes “eight frontiers” that “contain core problems with fundamental questions confronting” QIS today and must be addressed to push forward research and development breakthroughs in the space. They include “expanding opportunities for quantum technologies to benefit society,” “characterizing and mitigating quantum errors,” and more.
“It tries to cut through the hype a little bit,” Tahan explained. “It's a field that requires deep technical expertise. So, it's easy to be led in the wrong direction if you don't have all the data. So we try to narrow it down into ‘here are the important problems, here's what we really don't know, here’s what we do know, and go this way,’ and that will, hopefully benefit the whole enterprise.”
Quantum-focused strides have also been made by the U.S. on the international front. Tahan pointed to the first quantum cooperation agreement signed between America and Japan late last year, which laid out basic core values guiding their working together.
“We've been using that as a model to engage with other countries. We've had high-level meetings with Australia, industry collaborations with the U.K., and we're engaging with other countries. So, that's progressing,” Tahan said. “Many countries are interested in quantum as you can guess—there’s a lot of investments around the world—and many want to work with us on going faster together.”
China had also made its own notable quantum investments (some predating the NQI Act), and touted new claims of quantum supremacy, following Google, on the global stage this year.
“I wouldn't frame it as a competition ... We are still very much in the research phase here, and we'll see how those things pan out,” Tahan said. “I think we're taking the right steps, collectively. The U.S. ecosystem of companies, nonprofits and governments are—based on our strategy, both technical and policies—going in the right direction and making the right investments.”
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris previously put forth legislation to broadly advance quantum research, but at this point, the Biden administration hasn’t publicly shared any intentions to prioritize government-steered ongoing or future quantum efforts.
“[One of] the big things we're looking towards in the next year, is workforce development. We have a critical shortage or need for talent in this space. It’s a very diverse set of skills. With these new centers, just do the math. How many students and postdocs are you going to need to fill up those, to do all that research? It's a very large number,” Tahan said. “And so we're working on something to create that pipeline.”
In that light, the team will work to continue to develop NSF’s ongoing, Q-12 partnership. They’ll also reflect on what’s been built so far through the national initiative to identify any crucial needs that may have been looked over.
“As you stand something up that’s really big, you're always going to make some mistakes. What have you missed?” Tahan noted.
And going forward, the group plans to hone deeper in on balancing the economic and security implications of the burgeoning fields.
“As the technology gets more and more advanced, how do we be first to realize everything but also protect our investments?” Tahan said. “And getting that balance right is going to require careful policy thinking about how to update the way the United States does things.”