The United States Needs a Quantum Computing Investment Strategy
It is difficult to imagine a more disruptive economic or national security force than COVID-19, but one is coming. When most people hear the words “quantum computing” they nod along, silently, and wait for the subject to change to something less seemingly daunting and more inclusively familiar. While this lack of familiarity may hold up in polite conversation, policymakers must become better versed in the implications of the quantum future. Governments that fail to prepare for and harness its potential do so at their own peril.
Simply put, quantum computers use qubits instead of the bits in a traditional computer chip, which cannot handle code inputs more complex than the familiar “zero or one” binary. Unlike traditional bits, qubits rely on probabilistic inputs that do not inhabit fixed, binary positions, but a quantum “superposition” between zero and one. The upshot of this technical distinction is that it allows quantum computers to better deal with uncertainty and exponentially more complex data. Industry projections say that by 2030, quantum computing will overtake traditional computing in its support of the majority of our everyday lives and activities. To determine what this revolution will mean to US policymaking, we must begin with a shared understanding of the term.
Quantum computers are groundbreaking in their ability to model exponentially more data in substantially more complex ways than traditional computers, which have more in common with handheld calculators than they do with quantum machines. Further, quantum computing integrated with artificial intelligence or machine learning programs—or even into individual layers of calculation undergirding deep neural networks—will not only allow us to answer more challenging questions, but to seek out and solve questions we could not previously imagine. For example, existing technology allows for the design of better, more effective pharmaceuticals. Quantum computers, however, will enable the modeling of entirely new protein structures that only the synthesis of data on a quantum scale permits.
To accelerate the quantum future, the United States must embrace a two-pronged policy approach that assumes twin responsibilities as quantum’s primary investor and customer.
The first prong involves crafting an economic policy that rewards and builds on the tremendous quantum breakthroughs to date. IBM’s revolutionary approach to fast-tracking this technology for practical, everyday use and Google’s achievement of “quantum supremacy” fill one with awe at the power that quantum computers will soon possess. Navigating the current global economy’s uncertainty, particularly its global supply chains, requires just the sort of monumentally complex analysis that a quantum algorithm can perform in a manner far superior than readily available technologies. Other continuously perplexing issues, like the optimal battery design to store renewable energy, will provide quantum machines the opportunity to accelerate the development of needed innovation. Up until this point in history, new inventions have been the product of nations, firms, and industrious individuals. The quantum age will introduce a new source of ingenuity, a new class of inventors: machines.
While exciting, the quantum age stands to be expensive. Heavy up-front infrastructural investment is still the biggest burden to firms wishing to move into this space. Therefore, public funds must be stewarded toward innovators developing quantum computers sophisticated enough for real-world application. The thought of the United States navigating a quantum age whose rules and infrastructure are the domain of any other nation should inspire a commitment to once again lead in a technological endeavor of critical importance. This approach will command a heavy price, but then again, there is only one nation’s flag on the moon.
The second component of US quantum policy relates to national security and will require serious cultural shifts as well as additional funds and regulations.
The national security perspective on quantum has thus far been disappointingly dominated by fear. Viewed purely as a threat, quantum computing cannot revolutionize US prosperity and security as it must in the 21st century. The United States’ national security agencies should embrace quantum’s capabilities, and its legislative bodies should proactively and intelligently invest in and regulate this awesome technology, the former ideally making the latter more palatable. By serving as the largest buyer of fully developed quantum technologies, the US government will reward firms for investing in their creation while enhancing its national security capabilities. Leveraging the US government’s unparalleled investment and purchasing powers is just one way to align public and private sector incentives for the quantum future. Additionally, facilitating the sharing of intellectual property in the quantum space may reduce costs associated with duplication of efforts across borders while ensuring powerful discoveries remain under the transparent control of democratic governments.
The era of nodding indifferently through discussions of quantum computing is over. The United States’ leaders undoubtedly have questions for the quantum community, and those questions should be welcomed by every innovator building a product or system with the potential to so meaningfully change the world. The scariest outcome for the United States would be to scramble together a policy for a quantum age brought about by rival powers. To foreclose this possibility, US leaders must be trained in the language of the future, and when that future finally comes, make sure they have something to say.