DoD Takes a Long View of Quantum Computing

By John Russell

December 19, 2023

Given the large sums tied to expensive weapon systems – think $100-million-plus per F-35 fighter – it’s easy to forget the U.S. Department of Defense is a penny-pincher at heart. Speaking at the Quantum Economic Development Consortium’s (QEDC) annual meeting last week, DoD’s top quantum research director, John Burke, reminded the gathering, “After the Army pays for people fuel, food and ammunition, there’s not that much money left over for new tech. So, it needs to be very inexpensive.”

This perspective governs DoD’s efforts in quantum information sciences.

DoD, not surprisingly, is interested in all of QIS, including quantum computers, although post-quantum cryptography and quantum sensors are perhaps higher current priorities. Questions around quantum computing’s cost, the young stage of the technology, and about well-defined DoD missions are tempering the DoD rush into quantum computing.

Burke, principal director of quantum science for Department of Defense, walked through DoD’s QIS efforts at the QEDC meeting treading a narrow line between recognition of its potential but wariness with its readiness and cost. For DoD, the bottom line on quantum computing seems to be we’re not there yet, although he encouraged QEDC members and industry broadly to keep pushing and take advantage of a growing number of industry outreach efforts under DoD.

The slides below broadly show DoD’s QC thinking.

Burke’s brief comments made clear the DoD is watching closely but not jumping into quantum computing with both feet. “As many have noticed, our strategy right now is sort of wait and see. It seems like we need to graduate to something a little more proactive to understand what the implications of quantum computing are,” he said.

John Burke, principal director of quantum science for Department of Defense. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Leonard Fitzgerald

No doubt, Burke didn’t share all of DoD’s quantum R&D activities but it was interesting that early in his comments, he highlighted a “cautionary tale.”

“Early in my career I was working on trying to develop new clocks for GPS satellites [and] I want to give you a little anecdote that was a cautionary tale. GPS, as I’ve already highlighted, has had a huge economic impact. [A] study from quite a few years (10) ago estimated something like €227 billion euros in global revenue based on GPS, and the US estimate was about $56 billion a year. That’s a huge impact. But it’s predicated on quantum technology – these atomic clocks, but the value (cost) of those atomic clocks is very low. So, DoD is paying something like $10 million a year for that activity[and] the leverage there is enormous,” he said.

“[Here’s] the anecdote. The chip scale atomic clock (CSAC), I would say, is arguably one of the most successful new quantum technologies in this century. That started in 2000 and here it is 2023, and we’re still working on it 23 years later. Why are we doing that when the technology itself was worked out many decades ago – [it’s because] the cost for building those at commodity level that the DoD requires just isn’t there. The chip scale atomic clock costs something like a couple thousand dollars apiece. The original reason that DARPA developed this clock, through a number of companies, [was] because it needs to be more like a few $100 [for] DoD.”

It turns out the work Burke was referring to was funded by the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with the goal of developing a microchip-sized atomic clock for use in portable equipment. “In military equipment it [was] expected to provide improved location and battlespace situational awareness for dismounted soldiers when the global positioning system is not available, but many civilian applications are also envisioned. Commercial manufacturing of these atomic clocks began in 2011. The CSAC, the world’s smallest atomic clock, is 4 x 3.5 x 1 cm (1.5 x 1.4 x 0.4 inches) in size, weighs 35 grams, consumes only 115 mW of power, and can keep time to within 100 microseconds per day after several years of operation. A more stable design based on the vibration of rubidium atoms was demonstrated by NIST in 2019. The new design has yet to be commercialized.”[i]

Burke noted, “There’s this flawed belief that I often see in specialists [of having] a huge impact, and that’s true with quantum computers, for example, [they expect] a huge impact in a large market, but the value proposition is not so clear. [At DoD] we need to put more attention on in making that assessment of what the value proposition within the DoD is. That means different kinds of things than it would to industry. And I’m focused on that.

“So, speaking of quantum computing, we have this dichotomy of progress [hardware, etc.] being made. There’s a lot of applications that are out there. But there are gaps between the two. Our current assessment is there’s a big gap between the current capability and the value they might produce. We have been working in fundamental research in quantum computing for quite a long time, going back to the mid 90s, if not before that,” he said.

At this stage, said Burke, DoD is looking to tap into industry more.

“We have new programs. DARPA ONISQ (Optimization with Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum devices), DARPA US2QC (Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing), and Quantum Benchmarking are three programs that are currently active. We’ve added the Microelectronics Commons (prototyping) into hubs as a pushing on the industry base. And there’s actually some appropriations this year, we’re waiting on Congress to decide what to make of them to start even more activity, some of that focused on industry faces as well.

“These three DARPA programs, though, have really been focused on delivering analysis so that we can make stronger claims or better assessments about the future quantum computing. I have to say that I think our assessment is going to change over time, that the gap between applications and capability is narrowing. It’s obvious that everyone’s working towards that. So, we need to start thinking about how to get ahead of that. What does that look like? Exactly?

Burke’s was an interesting perspective, and perhaps bears repeating a slide from above as context for the DoD quantum research chief’s next comments.

“So, this timeline is, you know, is pretty vague (slide above.) It’s almost the end of 2023, [and] we’re already at the future almost. The question is what do we do going forward? And the answer is we don’t know. But I think right now is the time to try to figure that out. How would we go about doing that? There’s a long list [of ideas]. But getting beyond just what are the algorithms, what are the approach-specific kinds of capabilities, [and] going down into all the levels of detail – everything from the potential benefits, how it actually stacks up against classical computing, [how] all classical computing might move going forward, [and] estimating the actual economic value and impact of these things.

“Basically, [DoD needs to] come in with a really strong benefit statement. What is the benefit of quantum computing, precisely? Then going through the costs? How much would it cost to actually build one of these devices, run one of these devices, [and] what are the risks associated with it. I imagine there’ll have to be decisions made by the government, much less DOD, about what to do with quantum computers as they develop. We need to get ahead of a framework in in making that decision.”

There was a good deal more to the QEDC meeting, and the opening session which was live streamed. Executive director Celia Merzbacher presented a progress QEDC report, which HPCwire will cover in another article. Hyperion Research’s Bob Sorensen presented its annual quantum market update. There were presentations by Jen Dionne, sr. associate vice provost of research, Stanford University, and by Irfan Siddiqi, of Advanced Quantum Testbed and Quantum Nanoelectronics Lab, UC Berkeley, on opportunities for industry participation.

Alan McQuinn, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, gave a brief talk on reauthorization of the National Quantum Initiative Act; he said it now appears reauthorizing will occur next year. Merzbacher also conducted a fireside chat with Karl Mehta, chairman, Quad Investors Network, talking about access to capital.

Stay tuned.

Links to the DoD programs cited by Burke

Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing (US2QC)

https://www.darpa.mil/program/underexplored-systems-for-utility-scale-quantum-computing

Optimization with Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum devices (ONISQ)

https://www.darpa.mil/program/optimization-with-noisy-intermediate-scale-quantum-devices

Quantum Benchmarking (QB)

https://www.darpa.mil/program/quantum-benchmarking

The Microelectronics Commons: A National Network of Prototyping Innovation Hubs

https://microelectronicscommons.org/

Slides: Unclassified slides taken from Burke’s presentation

Footnote: [i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chip-scale_atomic_clock

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