Quantum Computing Needs More Public-Private Collaboration Says QED-C

By John Russell

October 4, 2022

Last week the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) released a new report – Public-Private Partnerships in Quantum Computing – that calls for increased government-commercial collaboration, broadly describes emerging use cases, and offers recommendations for pursuing more public-private partnerships (PPP). For quantum watchers, it’s an interesting document that steers clear of hype (and deep technology) and strikes an unrushed view of the state of quantum computing progress today.

Here’s a snippet from the report’s executive summary:

“Quantum computing (QC) is a technology with enormous potential, but for the moment, it is one only of potential. Despite the considerable amount of QC research and development (R&D) underway, to date, no economically meaningful use cases have been demonstrated. Over time, quantum computing is likely to follow Amara’s law regarding technology forecasting—its uses and benefits will be overestimated for the near-term and underestimated for the long-run. This report focuses on the near-term. It evaluates potential near-term QC applications as well as the prospect of using public-private partnerships (PPPs) to accelerate the time horizon for meaningful applications of quantum computing.

“Numerous proof-of-concept applications for quantum computing have been explored and reported. There is consensus that many applications, especially the more ambitious, will require true fault-tolerant quantum computers with large (on the order of 100-1,000) qubit counts to run effectively. It is unknown when such fault-tolerant computing will be available. Before then, it is possible that algorithms running on noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) computers, including quantum annealers, may compete favorably against classical approaches, especially for optimization and selected machine learning (ML) applications. It is also unclear when this may happen. As a proof of concept, it may happen within the next three years. A review of the QC application literature indicates that on an economic basis, it is unlikely to happen within the next three years.”

QED-C was established as a forum for fostering commercial quantum science as part of the U.S. Quantum Initiative Act passed in 2018. Its stated mission is basically to jumpstart a quantum information sciences industry in the U.S. QED-C is managed by SRI International, currently has around 240 members, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is both a member and has a broad oversight responsibility. (See HPCwire coverage, Merzbacher Q&A: Deep Dive into the Quantum Economic Development Consortium)

Celia Merzbacher, QED-C executive director, told HPCwire, “Quantum computing has great potential but the timeline when the technology will reach that potential is unclear. Our study considered how the timeline can be accelerated. We believe it is possible to speed progress by creating a public private partnership to identify the nearest term applications and then establishing a quantum computing challenge aimed at a priority application.”

The report is an interesting and quick read. The history of innovation, argues QED-C, makes clear the principle that the invention of revolutionary technology alone does not lead to its use.

“New technology must be significantly better at solving real-world problems if users are to adopt it at meaningful scale. Significantly better implies of level of superiority sufficient to overcome the costs—financial, operations, organizational, educational—of switching from one approach to another. Sustainable use of new technology in the real world is what distinguishes innovation from mere invention. As of the date of this report, it is fair to characterize quantum computing as a spectacular invention aspiring toward the status of true innovation. To reach this goal, QC capabilities need to be exposed to as many real-world use cases as possible. Partnerships, including PPPs, represent an ideal mechanism for facilitating this exposure,” according to the report.

The reports suggest there are four broad use-case categories for quantum computing:

  • Optimization: maximizing such objective functions as efficiency, cost, and distance traveled
  • Simulation: modeling physical systems, especially those that themselves are quantum mechanical in nature or involve solving differential equations
  • Linear algebra: matrix diagonalization and related analyses for use with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) applications
  • Factorization: deriving factors for the large integers used in cryptography

The study distinguishes between near-term use cases, perhaps solvable by advancing near-term intermediate scale quantum (NISQ) computers, and longer-term cases undertaken by fully fault-tolerant systems. The latter are generally thought to be perhaps a decade away. Near-term, roughly speaking, is generally taken to be within three years, although QED-C doesn’t set firm timelines. The report also touches on the importance of hybrid classical-quantum approaches, particularly for nearer-term quantum computing.

Most of this is familiar ground to the quantum computing community. Still, the QED-C report is a clearly-drawn and accessible summary. It also cites several examples of ongoing work in various industry and application areas. Here are two:

  • GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that quantum annealing machines made by D-Wave can compete with classical computers for codon optimization in the context of research on gene expression and development of recombinant protein therapies. GlaxoSmithKline found that gate-based quantum computers could not yet compete with classical computers for this type of analysis but believes that larger fault tolerant gate-based quantum computers could compete if successfully developed. The type of optimization analysis performed by GlaxoSmithKline is typical of the type of optimization problem that quantum annealers are designed to tackle, those for which combinatorics are central.”
  • Fujitsu, for example, has partnered with a large automotive manufacturer to address optimization challenges associated with job shop scheduling and positioning for chassis welding equipment. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) seam sealing is one of the most expensive steps in car production, contributing an average of 40 percent of the total manufacturing costs. Seam sealing robots face an extraordinarily large number of possible combinations of welding maneuvers, the sort of large-scale combinatorial problems that quantum annealing computers can address. Using an 8192-bit digital annealer, Fujitsu’s partner was able to map optimal welder roundtrips for a limited number of seem welders. Fujitsu has a similar annealing approach to optimize its own warehouse operations.”

While the study reviews ten past and ongoing PPPs – DARPA Grand Challenge, COVID-19 HPC Consortium, Manufacturing USA, among them – exploring their motivation and operations, the meat of the report is its call for more quantum-targeted PPPs: “Although real-world QC applications are not likely within three years, there is still significant rationale for government-led PPPs focused on advancing the state of the art of quantum computing and moving up the date of eventual real-world application.”

A few of quantum computing’s pioneers have issued detailed roadmaps leading to achieving quantum advantage. One example is the IBM roadmap shown below that was released in the spring and further expanded upon in July.

The QED-C report is perhaps a bit more restrained in suggested timelines. Excerpted below are portions of the three recommendations made by QED-C.

Recommendation 1: Thematic application discovery

“Finding a set of potential near-term QC applications of value to government is best done through a concerted discovery process that involves cooperation among each of the expert communities of Figure 1. The federal government should consider establishing a PPP whose mission is to find possible near- term QC applications by facilitating cooperation between QC hardware and software experts, application domain experts, and policy and market experts. Such a partnership should be organized around a significant public interest thematic application area, such as climate and sustainability or public health, in which there is an emerging critical mass of quantum R&D already underway.

“The near-term goal is not defined in terms of achieving real-world application in three years. Rather, the proposed partnership’s objective would be to evaluate use cases for the purpose of pulling forward the date at which real-world progress can be made. Government participants would bear primary responsibility for identifying important use cases and the criteria for making meaningful progress in addressing these use cases. This would be done within the thematic area chosen.

Recommendation 2: Quantum challenge

“Government-sponsored challenges have demonstrated their effectiveness in accelerating the development of technology intended for use in government mission areas. They also follow an iterative approach to competition that allows the government to revise timelines and objectives in response to participant progress and improved understanding of what is technologically possible.

“The U.S. federal government should consider organizing a QC challenge. A narrowly focused quantum challenge would complement the broader focus of Recommendation 1. The challenge should focus on an area with (a) clear government mission relevance, (b) active interest by the private sector, and (c) a critical mass of current QC research. Several areas described in the preceding near-term applications section meet these criteria. Financial fraud detection stands out given the level of interest on the part of private sector financial services firms in quantum computing for fraud detection and the enormous amount of real- world data available with which to experiment and develop QC anomaly and fraud detection tools.

Recommendation 3: Quantum enabling technology acceleration

“In addition to the two application-focused partnerships described above, the federal government should consider supporting a PPP focused on addressing the underlying technology development challenges of quantum computing. DOE’s INFUSE (Innovation Network for Fusion Energy) program funds projects directed at addressing technology roadblocks to developing practical fusion energy. It is a model worth considering for adaptation to QC R&D.

“The INFUSE program gives private-sector fusion energy companies access to the technical and financial support necessary to move fusion energy technologies forward by leveraging the unique capabilities of the DOE National Laboratories. INFUSE awards are not intended to help companies commercialize technology nor provide access to research services, expertise, or equipment that is readily available elsewhere. Rather, companies make requests for assistance to solve specific challenges related to fusion enabling technology development. Requests are evaluated based on the impact of the proposed project on the overall progress on fusion energy R&D. The INFUSE model requires little from applicant companies other than a 20 percent cost share.

“An INFUSE model for quantum would start with participation of the DOE’s QIS Research Centers. The QIS centers, coupled with DOE’s core research portfolio, are intended to steward the national ecosystem needed to advance QIS in the United States. From this staring point, the INFUSE model could be adapted for quantum computing in a number of ways. It would benefit from active R&D participation on the part of participating firms rather than a mere cost share. It should also include an expanded set of additional participants including universities and other entities with relevant capabilities. The proposed PPP should also focus on projects with prospects for general use within the quantum industry, giving it a pre- competitive focus. Developing appropriate eligibility criteria for projects and evaluation criteria for applicant requests represent key governance parameters for such a partnership. In effect, the partnership would create focused PPPs for each request made by the private sector, each with a defined budget, timeline, set of goals, and statement of work created as an outcome of the application process.”

This latest QED-C report is a reminder that much remains to be done before quantum computing goes mainstream. Yes, the commercial quantum sciences ecosystem – hardware, software, development tools, tire-kicking by potential users – is expanding fast. And yes, technology progress is accelerating. But hurdles remain. Quantum-targeted PPPs can help speed development, argues QED-C.

Link to QED-C announcement and full report, https://quantumconsortium.org/ppp22/

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