Interest and Investment in Quantum Continues to Grow
Published: September 26, 2019
A focus in quantum computing is picking up steam by government leaders and agencies, with R&D investments in the technology mounting.
Last year, I pointed out some of the attention that was given to Quantum Information Science (QIS) in the federal space. Much has happened in the way of policy and budget since then. This year, quantum – computing that processes information at a scale of small particles – is comfortably on the federal government’s radar as one of the next cutting-edge technologies of the future. Quantum computing is likely to disrupt more than just the computer science, mathematics and engineering worlds. According to the Networking & Information Technology Research & Development (NITRD) program, the technology is already having impacts in critical areas such as medicine with photonics in cancer therapy, and in national security with quantum-scale processing in global positioning systems. In fact, QIS is expected to be the next baseline for computing and data processing, resulting in the discovery of other innovative technologies and influencing a host of spaces such as health, security, cyber and the economy.
While the FY 2019 NDAA set the stage for the influence of policy in quantum R&D at DOD, the late 2019 to current era portrays a slew of activity surrounding QIS at the broader federal level. At the core of this activity is the passage of the National Quantum Initiative Act in December 2018. The legislation established a 10-year plan to accelerate the development of QIS and its related technologies, granting more than a billion dollars in research funding. Requirements stipulated in the law have been underway since then:
- March 2019: the White House establishes the National Quantum Coordination Office under the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The Office is comprised of representatives from agencies such as NIST, NSF, DOE and NASA to coordinate federal agency efforts in quantum.
- May 2019: DOE creates the Quantum Information Science Centers. With plans to establish at least two centers, the Office of Science (SC) at DOE will oversee research teams spanning various scientific and engineering disciplines to prioritize DOE program needs with quantum-related impacts.
- August 2019: the President signs an Executive Order (EO) launching the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee. Per the National Quantum Initiative Act, the committee will be comprised of leaders in quantum from industry, academia and federal agencies and labs to provide guidance on federal R&D and investment in quantum computing.
- September 2019: DOE opens nominations for the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee. Responses for the nominations are due October 4th for two-year appointed terms to serve on the committee funded and supported by the DOE.
The budget side of things proves just as influential to the ramp up of quantum activities in the federal space. Within the FY 2020 budget request, DOE/SC allots $169M in quantum information science while the NSF requests $106M for research in QIS. Rounding out the civilian agencies with quantum-related funding is NIST with $10M in additional funding to prioritize support for quantum research and application.
What is likely a sampling of DOD’s plans for quantum R&D, the FY 2020 RDT&E request reveals at least $355M in quantum initiatives. This budget figure spans areas of DOD such as DARPA, Navy, Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in projects center on, or partly containing, quantum R&D. Most of the identified investments are forecasted to have increased funding in the next four fiscal years.
The recently released FY 2020 NITRD supplement also prioritizes the investment of R&D in quantum. While not all investments in quantum computing-related R&D are labeled with budgetary figures, the Program Component Area (PCA) in which quantum falls under, Enabling R&D for High-Capability Computing Systems (EHCS), totals $333M in FY 2020. Of that, at least $31.7M is reserved for QIS and AI prototypes at DOE/SC. Moreover, the supplement calls for investments in quantum-based resistant security, the development of metrics for evaluating quantum device performance, and exploring quantum bits for networking to provide ultra secure optical links. The supplement further directs federal agencies to establish public-private partnerships in quantum, including providing support for academia like the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science and the Quantum Science Summer School.
Though funding for the above has not been finalized yet, agencies are making gradual investments to enhance the development and use of quantum computing already. Last month, DOE announced $60.7M in research funding for nine national laboratories, universities and non-profits for advances in quantum computing. Of that, $47M is dedicated to three, five-year projects to accelerate progress in quantum computing in areas of software tools and techniques. The remaining $13.7M will be for five, four-year projects for developing wide-are quantum networks to increase the range of quantum-based communication.
Out of the NSF, a $25M grant was awarded to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The grant will help the university develop the country’s first Quantum Foundry. The center will build the equipment and tools needed to “create, process and characterize materials for quantum information science.”
While year-to-year federal activity in the QIS space looks to be increasing, many in the quantum field feel there is still a long way to go with the technology. Quantum computing has yet to gain much attention in the private sector to take theory to development, as short-term applications of the technology are still limited. According to Christopher Monroe, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, “There is not so much a gap between the U.S. and China as there is between academic eggheads [who] are used to quantum and industry who build things.”