What will quantum computing do for us? Programmers, policymakers share ideas

Krysta Svore
Microsoft researchers Krysta Svore and David Reilly work on hardware for a quantum computer. (Microsoft Photo)

Quantum computer scientist Krysta Svore has a dream.

In her dream, she arrives at the week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington in a self-driving car that uses quantum computation to sharpen the precision of its GPS readings and optimize its route through traffic. “So I got here faster than I ever have before,” Svore said.

“I paid with my quantum credit card, which I know no one has stolen, because it’s fully secure,” she said  “On the way, I looked outside, and the air was crisp and clear. We have more carbon being extracted from the atmosphere. We have cleaner energy solutions. In fact, the country was just rewired with room-temperature superconducting cable, so we have lossless power transmission across the United States.”

In Svore’s dream, quantum computers have optimized the routes for transmitting that power, and have also come up with the chemistry for super-efficient storage batteries, turning solar and wind power into always-available electricity. “All of this is leading to a lower power bill for me,” she said.

Svore dreams of quantum technologies that can design new drugs on the molecular scale, map distant black holes with incredible precision and create new types of games that will help the next generation get used to how the weird world of quantum physics works.

“This was my dream last night,” Svore said. “The world was different. It was quantum. But in fact, this dream is here. The world is quantum. And it’s in our hands today to create this dream, to create it here in the Northwest.”

In the waking world, Svore is general manager of quantum software at Microsoft — and one of the organizers of this week’s quantum computing summit, which concluded today. The aim of the event was to build new connections within the Pacific Northwest’s quantum research community.

Microsoft, UW and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory already have a productive public-private partnership in the field, and this week’s event attracted hundreds of like-minded research leaders from Washington state, Oregon, British Columbia and beyond.

Quantum computing is different from classical digital computing in that it relies on the manipulation of quantum bits, or qubits, that can hold different values simultaneously until the result of the computation is read out. The hardware and software are tricky to work out, but some companies — such as D-Wave Systems in Burnaby, B.C. — are already offering first-generation quantum cloud services. Within five years, Microsoft hopes to follow with its own quantum computing network on the Azure cloud platform.

Funding for quantum research isn’t just a dream. Tech companies are pouring millions of dollars into their quantum efforts, and the recently approved National Quantum Initiative Act sets aside $1.2 billion for quantum research over the next five years. The White House’s recently released budget proposal calls for spending $430 million on quantum information science in the coming fiscal year.

“Quantum information science has the potential to revolutionize our scientific knowledge, improve our industrial base, and provide substantial economic and national security benefits,” the White House says in its RD budget overview. The $430 million would be divvied up among the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Chris Fall, who’s been nominated to head the Energy Department’s Office of Science, said quantum information science will be crucial to the economy as well as national security, in part because of its potential for breaking encryption codes and creating new forms of secure communications.

To follow through on the National Quantum Initiative Act, the Energy Department is gearing up to create a network of regional quantum research centers — a network that the Northwest Quantum Nexus hopes to get in on.

Fall said he can’t predict where the centers will be placed, but he assured attendees that quantum research will be a priority for his department. “We’re really going to be all in on this,” he said.

Jacob Taylor, assistant director for quantum information science at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, focused on the broader technological advances that will be sparked by the quantum quest.

“When I think about building a quantum computer, I don’t think about building qubits,” he said. “I think about materials science. I think about control electronics. I think about cryogenics. I think about lasers. I think about vacuum systems. I think about control software. … I look at the stuff that’s happening in quantum sensing, and quantum networking to some extent, as big drivers of science and also a technological base, which will feed into what you might need to build a quantum computer.”

As is the case for artificial intelligence research, the United States has rivals in the quantum computing race. The European Union has set aside more than a billion dollars for its “Quantum Flagship” initiative, and by some accounts, China is pouring billions of dollars into quantum technology.

Taylor, however, cautioned against making dollar-to-dollar comparisons. He said it’s hard to determine exactly how much China is spending because different types of programs are classified in different ways. “All I can say is, it’s clear that they are spending a lot of money,” Taylor said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he looks at the quantum race primarily through the prism of national security. He acknowledged it’s not easy for him to understand the detailed workings of quantum computing.

“One thing I do understand is it gives us the ability to test theories, to look at the challenges that we have and figure out ‘how can we get an answer to this?’ … In the defense world, it’s about doing everything better,” said Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

Smith said he has a quantum dream of his own.

“As a child, I read the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. What I want is, I want to be able to predict what our adversaries are going to do, what human beings are going to do,” Smith said. “I’m not actually entirely kidding about that.”

Update for 8:13 a.m. PT March 20: We’ve revised this report to make clear that Chris Fall has been nominated to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Science but has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.

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