White House issues quantum computing strategy and hosts public-private summit

Quantum science summit
A White House summit on quantum information science brings together Jake Taylor of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, France Cordova of the National Science Foundation, Paul Dabbar of the U.S. Energy Department, Walter Copan of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Mike Griffin of the Defense Department. (White House / OSTP Photo via Twitter)

Federal officials and industry leaders — including representatives from Microsoft and Google — met today at a White House summit to spark new initiatives in quantum information science.

Among the recommendations contained in a newly released strategic overview: setting up a U.S. Quantum Consortium, modeled after past efforts such as the non-profit, industry-led Semiconductor Research Corp.; and establishing a set of Grand Challenges to focus quantum computing research.

Quantum computing stands in contrast to the world of classical computing, which is grounded in the ones and zeros of binary bits. Quantum bits, or qubits, can represent both ones and zeros in superposition. That opens up new possibilities for understanding complex phenomena ranging from chemical reactions and changing climate conditions to the origins of the cosmos.

One of the most immediate concerns has to do with data encryption: Theoretically, quantum computers could be used to crack the code that’s widely used for secure online transactions and communications, and also enable new methods of tamper-proof data transfer.

The White House’s National Cyber Strategy, issued last week, underscored the importance of developing “quantum-resistant, public key cryptographic algorithms.” Concerns about crypto also come in for a mention in today’s strategy paper on quantum computing.

“The need to protect sensitive data and provide a reliable infrastructure over the long term requires moving to ‘post-quantum’ or ‘quantum-resistant’ forms of cryptography,” according to the subcommittee behind the strategy paper, which includes officials from federal agencies ranging from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA to the Homeland Security Department. the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In addition to setting up the U.S. Quantum Consortium and the Grand Challenges program, the paper calls upon agencies to draw up their own strategies for furthering quantum information research by the first quarter of 2019.

Such strategies should take a “science-first approach” to applications projected on a 10-year horizon, focusing on challenges that could include new types of quantum processors, sensors, navigation tools and security systems. The challenges could bring about “new approaches to understanding materials, chemistry and even gravity through quantum information theory,” the strategy paper said.

Researchers in the U.S. and allied countries have made lots of headway in quantum computing over the past couple of decades: Last month, Canada’s D-Wave Systems reported that its 2,048-qubit quantum computer could be used to simulate exotic phenomena associated with superconductivity. D-Wave, which counts Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos among its investors, has been working for years with Google, NASA, Lockheed Martin and other customers on the frontiers of quantum computing.

Microsoft has its own initiative in the field: At last year’s GeekWire Summit, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella listed quantum computing, along with artificial intelligence and mixed reality, as the three core technologies that will shape his company’s future.

In addition to Microsoft, Lockheed Martin and Google, the companies represented at today’s White House summit included IBM, Intel, ATT, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. (Check out the agenda and list of attendees.)

During the summit, the Department of Energy announced that it was setting aside $218 million in funding for 85 research projects, including one study proposed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (Check out the lists of awards and institutions here, here, here and here.)

The National Science Foundation said it would provide $31 million in awards for fundamental quantum research. “These new investments will position the U.S. to be a global leader in quantum research and development and help train the next generation of quantum researchers,” NSF Director France Cordova said in a statement. (The University of Oregon is among award recipients. Check out the lists here and here.)

Congress is working on legislation to provide $1.3 billion over the next 10 years to support research and development in quantum computing. The National Quantum Initiative Act has been approved by the House and is under consideration in the Senate.

China looms as a powerful competitor in the quantum computing race. Chinese researchers hold the record for long-distance quantum communications as well as for quantum entanglement of qubits.

In a July op-ed, the chairs of the House and Senate science committees, Lamar Smith and John Thune, said the international competition in quantum computing is a “race we must win.”

“China and the European Union are investing billions of dollars in new research facilities and equipment for quantum efforts. China, in particular, has stated publicly its national goal of surpassing the U.S. during the next decade,” the two Republicans wrote. “That is why our nation must devise a national quantum strategy and preserve America’s lead in the race to this technology.”

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