House Subcommittee Tackles US Competitiveness in Quantum Computing

By John Russell

November 1, 2017

How important is quantum computing? How are U.S. quantum research efforts stacking up against the rest of the world? What should a national quantum computing policy, if any, look like? Is the U.S. really falling behind in the crucial area? Late last month six leaders from government and industry tackled these questions at the Subcommittee on Research & Technology and Subcommittee on Energy Hearing – American Leadership in Quantum Technology.

While much of the testimony offered covered familiar ground for the HPC community, it was nonetheless an excellent overview of ongoing efforts and attitudes at the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, IBM, among others. There was even a proposal put forth by one speaker for a National Quantum Initiative funded to the tune of $500 million over five years and focused on three areas: quantum enhanced sensors; optical photonic quantum communication networks, and quantum computers.

Given the breadth of material covered, it’s useful that the committee has made the formal statements by the six panelists readily available (just click on the name bulleted below). There’s also a video of the proceedings.

Panel 1:

  • Carl J. Williams, acting director, Physical Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Jim Kurose, assistant director, Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, National Science Foundation
  • John Stephen Binkley, acting director of science, U.S. Department of Energy

Panel 2:

  • Scott Crowder, vice president and chief technology officer for quantum computing, IBM Systems Group
  • Christopher Monroe, distinguished university professor & Bice Zorn Professor, Department of Physics, University of Maryland; founder and chief scientist, IonQ, Inc.
  • Supratik Guha, director, Nanoscience and Technology Division, Argonne National Laboratory; professor, Institute for Molecular Engineering, University of Chicago

Full committee chair, Lamar Smith (R-Texas) noted “Although the United States retains global leadership in the theoretical physics that underpins quantum computing and related technologies, we may be slipping behind others in developing the quantum applications – programming know-how, development of national security and commercial applications…Just last year, Chinese scientists successfully sent the first-ever quantum transmission from Earth to an orbiting satellite… According to a 2015 McKinsey report, about 7,000 scientists worldwide, with a combined budget of about $1.5 billion, worked on non-classified quantum technology.”

Summarizing the comments the panelists is challenging other than to say quantum computing is important and could use more government support. Ideas on how such support might be shaped differed among speakers and it’s interesting to hear their recaps of ongoing quantum research. While we tend fix on quantum computing, exotic quibits, and revolutionizing computing (maybe), Williams’s (NIST) testimony reminded the gathering that quantum science has a wide-ranging reach:

“Atomic clocks define the second and tell time with amazing precision. For example, the most accurate U.S. atomic clock currently used for defining the second is the NIST-F2. It keeps time to an accuracy of less than a millionth of a billionth of a second. Stated in another way, the NIST-F2 clock will not lose a second in at least 300 million years. And just this month, NIST published a description of a radically new atomic clock design—the three-dimensional (3-D) quantum gas atomic clock. With a precision of just 3.5 parts error in 10 quintillion (1 followed by 19 zeros) in about 2 hours, it is the first atomic clock to ever reach the 10 quintillion threshold, and promises to usher in an era of dramatically improved measurements and technologies across many areas based on controlled quantum systems.”

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