Monday, May 27, 2024

The Quantum revolution may be just around the corner — Congress should act

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In early April, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) became the first university in the world to have an operating quantum computer. Just earlier that week, Microsoft and Quantinuum announced they had demonstrated the most reliable logical qubits on record. Both RPI and IBM, the company behind the university’s quantum computer, had received funds through the CHIPS and Science Act. But so far, Congress has been hesitant to embrace the promise of quantum technology. 

In November, the House Science Committee voted unanimously to reauthorize the 2018 National Quantum Initiative. The bill has been stuck in Congress ever since. If passed by Congress, it would appropriate $3.6 billion for quantum research, including funds for new quantum institutes and quantum foundries. In addition to supporting basic research, the U.S. quantum strategy should look to secure quantum supply chains and promote the commercialization of quantum applications. 

Quantum computing has slowly started to receive the attention of U.S. lawmakers. The promise is massive: By using the principles of quantum mechanics to represent and transmit information, quantum computing companies hope to massively speed up calculations — far beyond the impressive growth that underlies the recent AI revolution. In the long run, the GPUs powering today’s AI will not be energy efficient enough to keep up with demand. Workable quantum computers might solve this gap, fueling discovery by running scientific simulations at a much faster rate than ever before. 

But quantum computing also poses serious national security risks. Future quantum computers may be able to break most existing encryption protocols, allowing foreign actors to steal classified and personal information. Even as the United States rolls out quantum-resistant encryption standards, much of existing private information will be at risk of adversarial attacks. Intelligence experts believe U.S. competitors are harvesting information now to decrypt once quantum computers become usable. 

America’s edge over China has been narrowing. While U.S. companies still hold a significant lead in quantum computing patents, President Xi Jinping has spent an estimated $15 billion on China’s National Quantum Initiative. This ambitious effort seems to be paying off: in 2022, Chinese tech giant Baidu released an early quantum computer. Europe, too, is forging ahead: over the past five years, EU investments in quantum initiatives exceeded $8 billion

Many challenges remain before a quantum computer might actually become useful. Researchers seek to exploit quantum properties like superposition and entanglement to create computers with thousands of qubits — the fundamental unit of quantum information — while building processing units that could correct the errors resulting from quantum noise.

For the time being, no single approach dominates. While Alphabet and IBM are betting on superconducting qubits cooled to extremely low temperatures, other startups have chosen a neutral atom approach, which uses the lasers to manipulate atoms with no net electric charge. Other modalities include trapped ions and quantum dots; nanoscale semiconductor particles that can trap single electrons. 

As with semiconductors, protecting quantum supply chains will be critical. Insulating progress in quantum technologies from supply chain risks is inherently challenging, not least because there are so many different supply chains. With different companies and countries experimenting with a variety of physical models, a computer built on superconducting qubits would require special helium refrigerators, for example, while one using trapped-ion qubits would need advanced laser technology and specific isotopes. The raw materials and components for these technologies are found in Finland and Japan, for example — but also Russia. 

To preempt these risks, the United States should expand domestic production. The National Quantum Initiative Reauthorization Act would help scale quantum production through its support for specialized quantum foundries throughout the country. If needed, the Biden administration could rely on the Defense Production Act to encourage the domestic production of quantum components. At the same time, the United States would be unwise to regard quantum technologies only through a narrow national security lens. Research is still nascent and applications unclear. Supply chain security should not come at the expense of slowing down research or international collaboration. 

Lastly, the government should support the commercial application of quantum technologies. Commercialization should not be limited to computing. Quantum sensing, in fact, already has major near-term use cases in navigation and medical research. Sensors operating based on quantum properties display a remarkable sensitivity to even the minutest of perturbations. As such, they are better able to measure and detect a vast range of applications — from monitoring heart function to detecting earthquakes. Use cases range from mineral exploration to advanced medical imaging. 

Sensing is also set to induce a seismic shift in national security and systems intelligence. Quantum sensors could detect anything from subterranean nuclear installations to submarines and electromagnetic emissions. And while progress in quantum computing might still be decades away, quantum sensing technologies could revolutionize the battleground over the coming years already. By removing the need for GPS systems, quantum sensing might help the United States and its allies defeat the electronic warfare so skillfully employed by Russia in the war against Ukraine. 

The National Quantum Initiative Reauthorization Act should be part of an integrated strategy that puts quantum technologies on the national security agenda. In designing a quantum strategy, the U.S. government must look to both economic and military uses, creating and capturing value at the same time. Passing the Reauthorization Act would enable the Senate to address the biggest bottlenecks for quantum technologies: supporting technology research, securing supply chains, and promoting commercialization. 

Johannes Lang is a John F. Kennedy Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School. Andrew Moore is chief of staff to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. 

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