Quantum Community Weighs In on New U.S.-U.K. Collaboration Agreement

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Officials said the new joint agreement will make the nations collectively more competitive.

The United States and United Kingdom formally elevated their cooperative engagement to drive quantum information science and technology breakthroughs, via a recently issued joint statement that will have implications for government agencies and industry players. 

Signed by U.S. Presidential Science Advisor and White House Office of Science and Technology Director Dr. Eric Lander and U.K. Science Minister George Freeman, the agreement articulates the nations’ shared priorities and vision to enable new opportunities and outcomes in this likely-to-be-disruptive field.

“By working together, we can broaden training opportunities, develop new applications for quantum technology, and think globally about how to maximize the benefits of these technologies for everyone,” Lander said

Quantum information science and technologies essentially apply complex concepts about subatomic phenomena to those around storing, computing or measuring information. Real-world use cases remain limited for now, but the field is ultimately anticipated to usher in futuristic possibilities like unhackable connections or supercomputers that operate billions of times faster than today’s—in as soon as the next decade.

“Quantum technologies have enormous potential to revolutionize everything from helping to protect the environment to changing how we send and receive information...” Freeman noted in the release.

Across the world in recent years, nations have been increasingly investing in, rolling out and partnering on quantum-centered programs. Launched in 2018, the U.S. Quantum Initiative propelled weighty investments and schemes to “provide for a coordinated federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security.” And the U.K.’s efforts and ecosystem in this realm are supported by its National Quantum Technologies Programme. 

For their new and enhanced collaboration, the two countries’ shared priorities include promoting joint research, building the global market and supply chain and training scientists and engineers, according to their declaration. 

“We intend to establish a bilateral government-to-government dialogue on the areas identified in this vision and foster a [quantum information science and technology research and development] ecosystem that promotes the mutual well-being, prosperity, and security of present and future generations,” the officials confirmed in the joint statement.

In its own announcement, the White House added that the agreement will facilitate continued collaboration between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory—“emphasizing metrology research and standards for quantum technologies including next-generation atomic clocks and quantum sensors.” It will additionally underpin an “enhanced partnership” between the National Science Foundation and U.K. Research and Innovation governing body.

Beyond what it’ll introduce for agencies, this memorandum of alliance demonstrates that both countries are being deliberate about securing the sector ahead of their main competitors, analysts and industry executives explained on Friday. China, for instance, has committed to putting billions toward quantum computing in the next half-decade and reportedly currently leads the world in several associated technologies. 

“This national-level collaboration means new opportunities to advance quantum computing leveraging the best of both nations across industry, government, and academia,” Air Force veteran and Rigetti Computing’s Senior Vice President of Technology Partnerships Mandy Birch told Nextgov. “We anticipate this work will help ensure like-minded nations are quantum-ready for both security and economic development opportunities.”

Rigetti has been actively involved in efforts led by both countries to pave the way for quantum breakthroughs. Under this new agreement, Birch said the company expects government engagement that will include programs and funding to confront “critical issues” such as ensuring a trusted quantum industrial base and ethics that ensure the technology is used for good. She emphasized that the document “creates a launching point for workforce development and talent mobility that embraces diversity and inclusion, from the beginning, to evolve what may be the most powerful technology the world has ever known.”

“As our closest ally, the U.S.-U.K. quantum collaboration is a good step forward in advancing the era of quantum computing,” Quantum Xchange CEO Eddy Zervigon told Nextgov

To him, the quantum threat—or “when a quantum computer is available to break today's encryption standards”—will greatly impact cyber and national security defenses. So, such technologies “are certain” to play an important role for security and defense through NATO Article 5 or the principle of collective defense, he noted, which mandates that an attack against one ally is an attack against all of them.

“An enhanced partnership between the United States and United Kingdom on quantum technologies will only help lead these efforts and ensure all ally nations are adequately prepared for the quantum era,” Zervigon said.

Some experts predict that quantum technologies could become globalized industries—like semiconductors are today—where countries and regions then carve out specific niches in the quantum supply chain. Center for Data Innovation Policy Analyst Hodan Omaar explained that the joint statement offers the U.K. and U.S. an “opportunity to collaborate toward buttressing the broader ecosystem that supports the quantum ecosystem.” 

“The United Kingdom is already appearing to be a leader in the development and production of cryogenic devices, which are indispensable to creating the conditions needed for some quantum systems to operate. The United States on the other hand is a leader in chip-making technologies, which some quantum systems need,” she told Nextgov. “The countries can work together to figure out what the quantum supply chain looks like, how it is likely to develop, and where it makes sense to collaborate for mutual gain.”

Though this agreement largely focuses on reaching much longer-term impacts further down the road, Omaar argued that the U.S. government should also “invest in near-term quantum applications to bolster the field’s development.” 

Also offering recommendations, CEO and President of IonQ Peter Chapman said he would like to see both governments put more effort into guaranteeing bounties for specific quantum innovation. 

“One way space exploration moved quickly was how NASA set bounties for companies to fill for specific missions. For instance, they would award $300 million to the first company to provide a way to deliver a thousand gallons of water in payload,” he explained. “By guaranteeing the return on investment and leaving the field open for experimentation in approach, it spurred innovation quickly.”

Chapman, who has previously met with quantum leaders at the White House, added that while America and the U.K. already have a “reasonably robust practice of information sharing when it comes to quantum scientific development,” this move will put more lines of communication in place to accelerate innovation and establish a top-to-bottom system of companies working in concert.

“It’s early to say what exact opportunities can come from this, but convening the companies, researchers and government bodies together is the fertile soil from which things will spring,” he said. 

Rigetti’s Birch confirmed that “immediately after the signature of this agreement, U.S. and U.K. government leaders convened in London with the leading industry associations in both countries—QED-C and U.K. Quantum—with the goal of advancing practical collaboration activities.”