National Quantum Leaders Contemplate Current Investments and Future Innovation

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They expressed aims to continue to prioritize people and partnerships.

United States National Quantum Coordination Office Director Charles Tahan joined officials from France, Germany and the Netherlands on a virtual stage Wednesday to discuss how countries intend to drive innovation in the on-the-rise field, particularly in a post-coronavirus world.

The conversation shined a little light on how these nations are thinking about ethical approaches on the front end of quantum technologies’ development, needs to grow and diversify the global talent pipeline—and whether Brexit will impact their collaboration with the United Kingdom's national program.

“Quantum has always been global. It will continue to be global,” Tahan said during the Inside Quantum Technology conference. “We're much better off being first together, than second or last apart.”

This complex realm—sometimes referred to as quantum information science, or QIS—marries concepts around strange subatomic phenomena with theories on storing, computing or measuring information. Nations across the world have been increasingly investing in and organizing quantum-centered initiatives in recent years, as QIS is anticipated to usher in hard-to-visualize possibilities like unhackable communications or supercomputers that could be billions of times faster than today’s.

A recent report from the Canadian-based global research firm CIFAR provides a comprehensive look into ongoing national programs. It counts 12 countries that “have significant government-funded or-endorsed initiatives.” Further, 17 nations have implemented some form of national initiative or strategy to support quantum technology research and development, it notes. The panelists’ home countries are listed among those—as were China, Russia and others that weren’t explicitly mentioned during the IQT event.

The Germany government committed 2 billion euros last year to support quantum technology research in a program targeting COVID-19 recovery. German professor Claudia Linnhoff-Popien serves on an expert commission spawned from that program and reflected on its task to create a quantum computing roadmap.

“The aim of this roadmap is to find the right way to spend this [funding], and to demonstrate the quantum advantage for practical applications,” Linnhoff-Popien said. “So, that means in five to 10 years, Germany should be able to work together with its European partners to build and operate a quantum computer suitable for international competition—and within less than 10 to 15 years, there should be an error-correcting quantum computer for solving a universal class of problems.”

Neil Abroug, the national coordinator of France’s quantum strategy, spoke to his own country’s recent, heavy investments and ongoing development work. Co-Founder and Director of Quantum Delta Netherlands Freeke Heijman highlighted the country's fresh funding of a broad agenda that she said is “focused on scaling the ecosystem, in general.”

Ulrich Mans, the strategic partnerships lead at Quantum Delta Netherlands who moderated the panel, noted that while the Netherlands national quantum program emerged in 2019, funding for the program—and Germany's and France's—came more recently. The U.S. National Quantum Initiative, or NQI, is “the oldest one in the room,” Mans said, noting that it surfaced in 2018. 

Tahan, a longtime physicist who wears dual hats as both the NQCO director and assistant director for QIS at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered some perspective on the NQI

“Our strategy really hasn't changed in the last few years, it focuses on a science-first approach, and the other high-level policy goals—growing the quantum workforce, getting the infrastructure right, nurturing this nascent quantum industry, and then getting the security, both for national security and for economic security, balanced in a good way,” Tahan said. “And we continue to cooperate internationally.” 

The official added that he expects to continue to see a lot of support via the White House, Congress and federal agencies for quantum-centered work. Looking ahead to the next few years, Tahan predicted the U.S. will focus on refining applications and thinking critically about how quantum information science will benefit society. 

“I think we really are still in the very early days of understanding when a quantum computer, when quantum sensors, will be valuable, economically, to our country and to the whole world,” he said. “And we need to get there as fast as possible to understand and justify further investments.”

The U.S. also intends to grow its marketplace of ideas, according to Tahan. At the same time, America will be intentional about expanding and diversifying its pipeline of workers with quantum expertise. “Anybody who's been in this business knows that it's all about the people. Nothing else matters,” Tahan said. “It doesn't matter if you have a kajillion dollars—if you don't have the people to make progress, nothing's going to happen.”

He pointed to the government’s Q-12 education partnership as a vessel to make the quantum pipeline more inclusive by dispersing learning materials to versatile areas in hopes to not shut students in some places out. The other panelists echoed that broader goal to prioritize people—and get many individuals’ from across borders together to exchange insights and learnings. They expressed interest in ramping those up, both virtually and perhaps in person, as the world re-opens.  

“It's all about the people and the connection between the people who have shared ideas and shared ambitions—and it is a really challenging topic,” Heijman said. “It's still a rather small community and this talent is global. So, we don't want to limit it and confine it in a national ecosystem. We want to share, globally.”

The panelists also briefly discussed the legal, social and ethical aspects of the QIS realm. Tahan said he’s thinking through specific elements of QIS that need to be thought about in a unique way and aren’t covered by existing frameworks, such as those around cryptography and artificial intelligence. He added that elements of funding are tied to components around ethical concerns. 

The CIFAR research pointed to only “some national governments” that have explicitly acknowledged a need to begin paying attention to social and ethical issues in their quantum policies.

“Ethics of quantum technology—so it's a subject that we have identified quite late in establishing our strategy. For now, there’s no specific work on this subject,” Abroug said. “But we are considering it because we have identified that we should anticipate the ethical questions.”

The panel broadly agreed that even though the United Kingdom exited the European Union, the quantum-relevant cooperation between Europe, the U.S. and the U.K. will carry on in some shape or form. 

“We have historical collaboration with the U.K.,” Abroug noted, “and that will continue anyway.” 

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