A Growing Priority for Quantum Computing

Published: October 04, 2018

DEFENSEDOENISTNSFPolicy and LegislationResearch and Development

In recent weeks, leaders in the federal government have highlighted the importance of further pursuit and investment in quantum initiatives to take the U.S. to the next level in this unique science.

While quantum theory made its debut decades ago, it has only been recently that researchers and scientists have been well-positioned to design quantum systems/computers for tasks that classical machines cannot perform. In response, U.S. leaders are trying to coordinate, invest and expand in quantum computing to hopefully become the leading nation in this game changing field.

What is quantum computing? Transcending the sequential manner in which information is classically processed, quantum computing processes information at a scale of small particles such as electrons and photons. Whereas current transistors can only be classified as “0” or “1” at any given time, quantum computing can exist at any range (i.e. 25% of “0” or 50% of “1”), greatly expanding the amount of information that can be held in each bit, otherwise known as a qubit.

The possibilities from quantum computing can be quite endless with breakthroughs in energy, medicine, national security, communication and advancing other growing fields such as artificial intelligence. The greatest concern for quantum is its potential to crack the code used for data encryption and open the flood gates to secured data transfers.

With such high stakes as these, it is no surprise the administration and Congress are placing emphasis on the research and design of quantum computing, not only with related federal agencies but with industry and academia too. For instance, the Quantum Computing Research Act of 2018, introduced in the Senate last June, would require the DOD to establish a consortium related to quantum information sciences to oversee grants to higher learning institutions and private industry. Additionally, passed in the House last month, the National Quantum Initiative Act is looking to establish a Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science under the National Science and Technology Council with relevant federal agencies and a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee to advise the President and subcommittee on quantum R&D. So far the legislation has bipartisan support and if passed, the initiative is estimated to cost $1.3B in the first five years. In parallel with these legislative proposals, the FY 2019 NDAA includes a section directing the DOD to establish a quantum information science and technology R&D program to boost efforts in quantum technology in relation to national security.

Moreover, the administration’s notice of quantum is apparent in the summit meeting at the White House last month with key industry leaders on the topic. The summit is in conjunction with the release of the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science under the National Science and Technology Council. The strategy seeks to create a “visible, systematic, national approach to quantum information research and development, organized under a single brand…” The strategy also directs relevant agencies to develop execution plans by the first quarter of 2019 to “enable new opportunities on a ten-year horizon” within quantum information science.

So how much has been spent by federal agencies on quantum information science thus far and where will investment go from here? While the NITRD Supplement to the President’s FY 2019 Budget does not specifically identify the numbers, we do know that funds dedicated to quantum-related R&D are contained within NITRD’s Enabling R&D for High-Capability Computing Systems (EHCS) program component area:

Source: NITRD Supplement to the President’s FY 2019 Budget Request

Additionally, at a hearing with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on September 25th, Paul Dabbar, Undersecretary for Science at Energy testified that more than $200 million a year has been invested in basic and applied research for quantum by DOD, NIST, NSF and DOE. At DOE alone, the agency spent $62.3M in FY 2018 and requests $120M in FY 2019 for quantum research. Furthermore, the department recently awarded $218M for new research awards in quantum, with $81M dedicated to support the development of hardware and software for quantum computing and two additional quantum testbed sites. Likewise, NSF recently announced $31M in new awards for quantum information processing.

While quantum research is still in a developmental phase, it is with no doubt that the federal government will continue to invest in this critical component of science. According to Dr. Supratik Guha from the Argonne National Laboratory at the Senate hearing, it is “imperative for the U.S. to maintain its edge in this field because this technology will offer critical differentiating advantages to the leader.”