I really can’t believe that almost exactly one year ago I was writing a column about another government shutdown. Let’s hope that a shutdown, or partial shutdown, or whatever the current one is now being called does not become a regular occurrence, much less a yearly tradition. I don’t know if certain government officials realize this or not, but we can’t compete on the world stage if our government isn’t even open. Hopefully, this madness will end soon and our hard-working feds can get back to doing their amazing jobs.
I wanted to write about something positive this week: the fact that the U.S. is finally investing in quantum computing as a key to our nation’s future. This was one of my three tech predictions for 2019, though I didn’t really expect it to come to fruition so quickly. In fact, it got wrapped up before the end of the year (though after I wrote my column) when the president signed bill H.R.6227, the National Quantum Initiative Act, into law.
Specifically, the bill pumps an amazing $1.2 billion into the quantum research budgets for the Energy Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA and the National Science Foundation. According to the bill, each agency will have a role to play. NIST will carry out specified quantum science activities and convene a workshop to discuss how to develop a strong quantum information science and technology industry. The National Science Foundation will do research and create an educational program on quantum information science and engineering, and award grants for the establishment of Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education. The Energy Department will conduct a research program on quantum information science.
Quantum computing is still very much in its infancy. If you want to learn the specifics about how the science works—it seems almost like magic, or at least alchemy, at this point—you should read my Nextgov explainer piece on quantum computing. It was written back in 2016, but the technology has not fundamentally changed since then. There have been incremental improvements, but nothing Earth-shattering just yet. It seems like the science of quantum computing will advance in inches instead of one huge eureka type moment.
In terms of importance, quantum computing could be up there with some of the major technological advancements that changed the world, like the microchip or even electricity. That is why I feel the United States needs to become the undisputed leader in the field. Can you imagine how different the world would be today if the microchip and computers were first developed and deployed in China, or Russia, or even Nazi Germany?
Most of the fear regarding falling behind in quantum computing involves encryption. Whatever county is able to develop fast quantum computers will be able to more easily break the encryption protecting everybody else. That is why NIST is trying to simultaneously develop quantum-resistant algorithms even as it begins its role in the National Quantum Initiative Act. NIST wants to develop fast quantum computers and the means to prevent them from being used to ferret out government secrets.
The encryption question is probably why other countries are also investing in quantum technology. China built a $10 billion facility designed to advance quantum computing. Russia is working on making quantum computers more accessible, and thus able to more easily carry out instructions using standard programming, at its own state-sponsored Quantum Computing Center. Even North Korea is reportedly in this race.
But while reading other country’s mail is a big advantage, I think the long-term gains will come to whatever country is able to develop the technology to the point where they become the center of those efforts. Imagine if the United States had to import internal combustion engines from other countries, and how that would have changed the development of our car-dependent society. That’s just one example. I have little idea, and I don’t think anyone does, what kinds of technologies and applications will ultimately be possible with advanced quantum computing. But it could be life-changing in many ways, and we need to be at the head of the pack to reap those rewards.
The one ace in the hole for the United States is private industry, which is already leaps and bounds ahead of the game when it comes to quantum development. Microsoft, Intel, Google, IBM and plenty of smaller firms that you probably have not heard about are all plowing forward with quantum efforts. Several of them promise that a quantum supremacy machine, a term created by John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology to describe a quantum computer carrying out tasks that are not practical with a traditional computer, will arrive this year.
But private industry can’t do it alone, and that is why the National Quantum Initiative Act is so important. It will allow the government to help focus those efforts while exploring the follow-up applications and technologies that fast and efficient quantum computing will enable. We finally have the foundations in place to empower that effort. And make no mistake, the world will be forever changed, probably sooner than most of us expect.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys