5 reasons the U.S. could lose its quantum leadership

IBM ReIBM Q System One quantum computer in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., October 18, 2019

IBM ReIBM Q System One quantum computer in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., October 18, 2019 Misha Friedman/Getty Images

U.S. government is at a technological inflection point and unless we act quickly to bolster domestic micro-electronics production, invest in research and upskill our workforce, we will be left in the dust as the rest of the world advances in quantum.

In the late 1980s, both government and industry in the United States started to realize that microelectronics would drive the innovation economy into the 21st century. At the time, concern was growing that Japan had leveraged research funded by the U.S. government and moved ahead in terms of their ability to produce at scale. 

To gain back a strategic lead, in 1987 the government invested $500 million in an entity based in Austin, Texas known as Sematech. It consisted of "chip" manufacturers, material suppliers, universities, research institutes and equipment manufacturers. These independent parties collaborated and worked together to successfully regain the U.S. microelectronics advantage.

Right now, the U.S. government is at a similar technological inflection point. Below are a few recommendations that will enable the U.S.  to regain our foothold in quantum. Unless we act quickly, the U.S. will  be left in the dust as the rest of the world advances in quantum. 

1. Lack of Public-Private Partnerships. We need a public-private partnership on a similar scale as Sematech focused on advancing the ability to manufacture, reduce cost and miniaturize the components of quantum enabled systems. Chips are the underlying foundation of every trillion-dollar company today; similarly, the country that leads in quantum innovation will lead the global economy of tomorrow.  The U.S. is actively working to address the supply chain issues around semiconductors or "chips" as the joint conference committee considers its next steps relative to the U.S. Senate's COMPETES Act and the U.S. House CHIPS Act. While microelectronics is a global industry, the astonishing lack of domestic capacity has been amplified during the current pandemic crisis in ways that many never realized. There has been a lack of deep interest in advanced manufacturing on many critical levels due to the high cost of equipment to manufacture components, a shortage in skilled labor, the eagerness of other nations to provide manufacturing infrastructure, and a lack of understanding about how quantum capabilities will affect the U.S. in the coming decade.

Resolving these issues by reestablishing domestic manufacturing capacity is rightly a bipartisan focus that will require both time and significant strategic financial support from the U.S. government. The required financial support is clearly measured in the tens of billions of dollars.

2. Failure to inspire students: A limiting factor for advancing quantum technology is talent. The U.S. has failed to inspire enough students to pursue advanced degrees in core quantum physics disciplines. One idea to consider would be a combined loan repayment and loan forgiveness program to immediately increase the talent pipeline. Considerations such as deferring the repayment of student loans for U.S. citizens who pursue these degrees and arranging a complete loan forgiveness for those who work a meaningful period (ie. five years) in a quantum-related industry or research institution. 

3. Limited accessibility to quantum: We must decrease  barriers to access. To facilitate this, imagine a large bank of quantum emulators that would create an education network for a high fidelity emulation, available for experimentation at all U.S. universities. We can begin by offering it to those with recognized physics departments, and expand as capacity can be added to include all U.S.-based universities and select High Schools. This availability of such a resource would open up innovation, similar to how Raspberry Pi and Arduino have opened up innovation around the Internet of things. The capability exists today, it simply needs to be funded and replicated.

4. Education and financial support: By expanding the number of U.S. universities with strong quantum physics departments, we can fuel the talent pipeline. Federal funding would be required to  support the stand-up of these programs. Funding for the initial start-up (inclusive of hiring of faculty and lab equipment) in partnership with the universities, and support for recurring funding would be required until the program can reach a self-sustaining point. For example, a 50/50 cost share of start-up cost and a step down on annual support for five years might be offered until the student population is sufficient for tuition to sustain the ongoing program.

5. Upskilling the workforce: Finally, we can't forget about the software and algorithms that enable us to realize the true quantum advantage. While we have trained millions of smart people to program traditional computers, we must develop new skills to take advantage of the unique aspects of the non-binary quantum computer. Much of the valuable innovation around quantum will come from being able to write code and develop those algorithms that can most benefit from the unique quantum architecture. An approach for this aspect of quantum similar in structure to the Physics concept described above could be developed. This will allow us to further diversify, and consider funding these programs at different universities from those selected for the expanded physics departments. 

Today, we face a crisis in quantum technology not unlike the critical events and factors that contributed to our declining foothold in the microelectronics industry. China has made a significant investment in quantum and the U.S. is barely holding on to our advantage. Together, we have the potential to regain our leadership position by sharing our ideas and collaborating across the private and public sectors.

Chester Kennedy is president of research and security solutions at ColdQuanta. He is a 35-year aerospace and commercial electronics industry veteran who held senior roles at Lockheed Martin. He is an associate Fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Senior Member of IEEE.

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