Developing Viable Quantum Tech Hinges On Hardware, Workforce

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Officials at the Department of Energy said that in addition to continued research and development, a basic foundation is needed to make quantum technologies mainstream.

Quantum technologies are poised to innovate key industries, including business procedures within the federal government, but require significant advances in the hardware and software to support their operations. 

Barbara Helland, the associate director at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research within the Office of Science, discussed some of the ways her office is working to advance quantum technologies in a variety of fields. 

Citing quantum use cases related to artificial intelligence, data analytics, and even a partnership to develop noninvasive imaging with the National Institutes of Health, Helland said fundamental technologies like routers and transducers are a key step in developing quantum networking.

“We're not there yet,” she told Nextgov. “Right now, we aren't sure what it…it's going to do in the future. But we need new, young investigators coming to give us their ideas to push the field forward.”

Quantum technologies, including computing and networking, run on the principles of quantum physics. Quantum computing in particular processes pieces of information called qubits. Unlike standard bits, qubits don’t have a set value of either one or zero; they exist in superposition, which lets corresponding quantum computers process information and solve algorithms at a faster rate. 

Helland emphasized the need for basic physical infrastructure to support the faster information processing quantum technology promises. 

“We have to be cognizant that at some point, we're going to need technicians. We're going to need people that build these computers, put these computers together to maintain these computers, build the sensors, put the sensors on satellites, put the sensors on the electric grid, and things like that and connect them together,” she said. “Along with the basic research, we have to start building the capacity to support quantum.”

Recruiting and maintaining a strong federal workforce alongside steady funding for research and development are also critical to helping support quantum technology. Finding the ideal application for quantum technology that will impact larger swaths of public life has also yet to occur. 

“One of the problems right now with quantum is that we haven't found that killer app for quantum,” Helland said.

A bevy of fields stand to benefit from the incorporation of quantum computing and technology, with Helland noting specifically that cybersecurity, bioimaging, and sensor technology are three examples of how quantum technology will innovate data collection and analysis. 

Despite the influx in federal funding, Helland projects that the U.S. is about five to 10 years away from more mainstream quantum applications. 

“There's a lot of just basic research that needs to go on, just to make quantum computing viable,” she continued. “We need to develop benchmarks for quantum. But we're not really talking about all the foundations that need to be there to build something quantum already.”

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