WASHINGTON—Academics and government officials met on the White House grounds Friday to discuss the urgent need to collaborate to advance the country’s prowess in quantum information science.
“It’s critical that we win in the industries of the future, of which quantum is clearly one,” said Chris Liddell, assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. He added that investment in quantum information science is one area in which there is “true bipartisan support.”
Quantum information science is an area of study that includes quantum-based cryptography and communication as well as quantum computing, a next-generation technology currently in development that experts say is orders of magnitude more powerful than traditional computers. It has potential applications in pharmaceuticals, finance, transportation and poses a threat to current encryptions the world relies on for cybersecurity.
President Trump’s administration has made quantum computing a priority. A bill was signed into law in December to establish a National Quantum Initiative to accelerate research and development in the technology over the next 10 years. The law authorizes $1.2 billion over five years for quantum-related activities across the federal government.
The meeting included more than 20 university leaders from institutions ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Delaware State University as well as heads of government agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department.
Quantum computing, which harnesses the “bizarre” properties of quantum physics, has the potential to pique the interest of a range of students just as space travel attracted people outside the realm of astrophysics, said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
But first, universities, national laboratories and companies developing quantum computers need to ensure they are exposing students to the emerging technology, participants at the meeting said.
“It’s really key that our high-strength quantum hubs are tied together so they’re complementary instead of competitive,” said Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Colorado Boulder. The university is reaching out to all surrounding states to ensure they also have access to the state’s quantum computing labs, she said.
In order for the country to compete in the field, academics and government agencies need to think about broadening their quantum information science initiatives to allow students from smaller universities to access the technology, participants said.
“The big institutions don’t have all the good ideas,” said Melissa Harrington, associate vice president of research at Delaware State University, a historically black university with a current enrollment of about 4,900 students.
Quantum computing labs are expensive to create and require advanced equipment on university campuses to attract students, participants said. It should be free for academic institutions to experiment with early prototypes of quantum computers, others said.
Part of the federal quantum computing bill establishes Energy Department national research centers with five-year allocations of up to $25 million per center per year. The Energy Department’s Office of Science saw its quantum funding roughly double, to $120 million, for fiscal 2019.
Friday’s meeting comes against a backdrop of news of advances by China in a range of emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to supercomputing. Some are calling upon the federal government to invest more into research and development efforts. The federal government spent $116 billion on R&D initiatives in 2017, with about 40% going to defense, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Overall federal R&D spending, at 0.7% of gross domestic product, is roughly half what it was in the mid-1980s.
Looking ahead, government funding will be necessary to help foster certain aspects of the quantum computing industry, such as supply chain components, said Shaun Maguire, partner at GV, formerly known as Google Ventures. The success of quantum computing partly depends on a healthy and well-funded supply chain of critical infrastructure components, he said.
Large companies as well as startups are investing heavily in developing a commercial-grade quantum computer that will add meaningful business value and competitive advantage. The timeline for when that will happen is up for debate, though Mr. Maguire is optimistic because he has seen a steady rate of progress in the field.
“We’re about two to three years away from truly useful commercial milestones,” he said.
Write to Sara Castellanos at [email protected]
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