U.S. Government Investment in Quantum Technology

Published: August 22, 2018

Federal Market AnalysisBig DataDEFENSEInformation TechnologyNational Defense Authorization ActPolicy and Legislation

Is a boom in spending on quantum technology R&D around the corner?

Those tracking the public sector technology market may be forgiven for overlooking the federal government’s interest in emerging quantum computing and sensing techniques. These advanced technologies leverage theories developed in the field of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that only a select few in the world study due to its complexity and relative novelty compared to older approaches. What are quantum technologies? In a nutshell, quantum computing harnesses ideas found in quantum mechanics to create super-fast, super-powerful computers that process information at a rate far surpassing even the most powerful supercomputers currently in existence.

The basic unit of quantum computing power is a “quantum bit,” otherwise known as a “qubit.” The qubit is a piece of data capable of being either the “0” or the “1” in standard computing binary code depending on which way the electron in the qubit is spinning. I know, crazy! The bottom line is that the more qubits a system runs, the faster it can process data. Algorithms then run on top of the qubit-driven system, providing usable information from the raw data. Theoretically, these computers are so fast that within a few short years they will be able to break almost every type of encryption in use today. If you think about the implications of this for our data-based society it means that in the future nothing will be secure; not your personal health data, not your bank account, not your tax records, not your crypto currencies. Absolutely nothing. Understandably, therefore, several federal agencies and the U.S. Congress took notice of the quantum train barreling down the track. China in particular is sinking billions of dollars into a quantum computing arms race with the United States. The first nation to develop an effective quantum computer wins.

To that end, Congress included Section 222 in the FY 2019 NDAA directing the Department of Defense to develop a quantum information science and technology R&D program. Efforts in the area have been underway for some time, but now Congress wants a formal, department-wide effort dedicated to the development of quantum technology. Section 222 calls for the DOD to:

  • Coordinate all quantum information science and technology R&D within the department and provide for cooperation and collaboration with civilian agencies (i.e., NIST, NASA, DOE, NSF) also performing such work.
  • Develop a stable, long-lasting portfolio of quantum R&D programs.
  • Accelerate and deploy quantum technologies to the Armed Forces and measure their success.
  • Establish and support facilities and infrastructure to support the needs of quantum R&D, including development of the industrial base.

The work will be coordinated by the heads of the military departments and the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering with focus on solving the following set of problems:

  • Optimizing the quantum analysis of national security data sets
  • Designing new materials and molecular functions
  • Securing communications and cryptography
  • Quantum sensing and metrology
  • Developing mathematics to support defense missions related to quantum-based encryption techniques
  • Processing and manufacturing low cost, robust, and reliable quantum information science and technology-enabled devices and systems

No budgetary figures are available yet that would permit an estimate of spending on quantum R&D. Based on efforts underway at several major government contracting outfits, however, it is safe to say that within a few years the federal market for quantum technology will probably be booming. Also count on Other Transaction Agreements playing a big part in quantum technology acquisitions.