How Federal Agencies Can Take a 'Quantum Leap' in Computing

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The first step is to come together.

Is the government ready for a quantum leap?

In this case, the leap is about quantum computing, which promises to fast-forward federal problem-solving into new levels of efficiency and productivity. Indeed, compared to today’s computers, transitioning to a quantum version would be like going from running on a high school track to racing a stock car on a super speedway. Yet, in the quantum realm, things jump and jitter. For instance, electrons in an atom make quantum hops up and down, as if they’re dancing along a long stretch of rungs on a towering ladder.

If they maximize the benefits of this computing, U.S. agencies will nicely set up their own, impressive “climb” up a ladder—and make the ascent more swiftly than they could possibly have imagined. To summarize definitions from IBM and other organizations, quantum computing leverages quantum mechanics to calculate and otherwise “think” in a manner so rapidly, that it is unimaginably fast compared to modern machines. It uses individual, subatomic particles—quantum bits, or qubits—as computing elements representing the traditional binary 0s and 1s. With this, quantum computing takes advantage of the following technology phenomena:

  • Superposition: a combination of states which would normally act independently. Think of this as a marble placed on a plate that exists on two sides of the plate at the same time. Hence, if an ordinary bit of data (0 or 1) is in supposition on the left and right side of the plate, it can act as a 0 and 1 at the same time. As a result of this concept, qubits can process larger amounts of information more quickly compared to traditional/ordinary bits.
  • Entanglement: when intertwined particles behave as one system as a sort of quantum marriage between qubits. These intertwined particles will exhibit the same properties regardless of distance. Entanglement is an extremely useful phenomena considering that the measured value of a given qubit determines the value of a second entangled qubit, increasing the exponential power of computing as we know it.

For its part, the federal government has expressed interest in the technology with a number of efforts underway.

In June, the White House announced that the Office of Science and Technology Policy will launch a quantum information science subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council to encourage these initiatives throughout the government.

In July, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency asked the private sector and academic technology communities to provide input on the possible impact of quantum computing in areas of interest such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, physical systems and data.

In August, the National Science Foundation awarded $15 million over five years to fund what’s called the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design project, with the goal of creating a “practical quantum computer” that would answer today’s “unsolvable” research questions. “Quantum computers will change everything about the technology we use and how we use it, and we are still taking the initial steps toward realizing this goal,” said NSF Director France Córdova, in a statement that accompanied the award.

But how should federal agencies best prepare to invest, deploy and otherwise leverage the advantages of quantum computing? We need to consider the following recommendations:

Come together. We must take a strategic approach to development, and after all, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and shared resources from public-private sector partnerships add more value than an agency acting alone. To reinforce a safe and harmonious environment within, weigh the risks involved with information-sharing, and set up rules and best practices to reduce these risks.

Focus on both technology and commercialization. Government leaders should lend budget support throughout multiple stages of commercial development, especially since U.S. innovators have found it difficult to acquire sustained investment—particularly in middle stages. For technology maturation to take hold, continuous and dependable funding proves necessary.

Strengthen the workforce. Without good people, our agencies will fall behind. We have to commit to the ongoing recruiting, retaining and training of our science and technology teams. In addition, agencies should engage more rigorously with academia and industry to ensure that a relevant workforce transitions into the federal space.

This is an exciting time, with our government poised to take that “quantum leap” to new frontiers of innovation and public service proficiency. But, as during other potentially historic and defining periods—just as that of the 1960s for the space program—we must move forward strategically with better partnerships, collaborations, investments and people to get us to where we need to be.

Seli Agbolsu-Amison is a cybersecurity data scientist and subject matter expert at NetCentrics.