America could use a quantum leap

While much of the technology world focuses on artificial intelligence, a small but steady community has emerged over quantum technologies.

While much of the technology world focuses on artificial intelligence, a small but steady community has emerged over quantum technologies. More than simply the elusive quantum computers, QIST, or quantum information science and technologies, will be crucial to future military dominance. For more on this, Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with Dr. Celia Merzbacher, the Executive Director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin And let’s talk about the consortium itself. This is a creature that was kind of ordered into existence several years ago by Congress.

Celia Merzbacher That’s right. We’re at about year five now. And in the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act, Congress called honest in the Department of Commerce to establish a consortium of stakeholders. And that’s what QTc is. So, we started with what I think of as startup funding from the government from nest. It’s great to be partnering with an agency that both understands technology and is in the Department of Commerce, has a mission to help industry to grow and thrive. And over the five years, we’ve grown a community of industry participants and other stakeholders that now is really spanning the globe. It’s a global quantum community that we’ve created.

Tom Temin And quantum is, it’s safe to say, in terms of corporate participation, includes some of the big famous names. You know, IBM has been chasing after quantum computing, but I imagine there’s a lot of small niche startups, too.

Celia Merzbacher Absolutely. I think that’s a really important aspect of this emerging technology. There’s big tech investments and all the big guys that you can think of Google, IBM, Microsoft, AWS and others are members of the consortium, but really the largest fraction are small and mid-sized and startup companies who are taking the results of a lot of the research that’s going on and developing it into practical applications. And that’s really the community that I focus on in my day job, trying to make sure that they have the resources they need to be able to take the results of research and make it real.

Tom Temin And one of the white papers that your group has published had a small statement which caught my eye, and that is that quantum technologies themselves are difficult to visualize. People can understand AI. It’s just logic software ultimately, and everyone knows if and statements. But quantum is not an extension of just regular digital technology. Exactly.

Celia Merzbacher That’s right. And I think that’s one of the challenges I run into excited young people who express interest in the field. They’ve heard about it and it’s exciting to them, but they feel like they have to have a PhD in physics in order to enter the careers there. And that’s not really true. There’s a lot of need for engineering, for software developers, even for people in business roles, technical sales and so on. So, it’s going to require people who have some familiarity with this field, which certainly benefits from having some base in science and technology and mathematics. And I would encourage young people who might be listening to take those courses, because that will really be a good base for being able to go in all kinds of directions.

Tom Temin And the United States investment levels in quantum. Some people have raised the alarm bells that the United States is not investing at the rate that China is, because they know the benefits of quantum. And so, you’re calling on generally increase funding. Tell us more about that idea.

Celia Merzbacher These programs are across government. And these kinds of initiatives call upon the various parts of government funded science and technology R&D to invest. So, it’s a priority from the top down. And the principal parts of government that are developing technologies include the Department of Defense, of course, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, which primarily funds university research, and then agencies like NIST, which are government laboratories primarily, and others. So, it’s very difficult, first of all, to really get an accurate figure on what that investment is. The government does the best it can, and as you probably know, you can go to and you can see the annual reports that provide those figures. And those are probably minimum numbers in a way, because they don’t include a lot of perhaps infrastructure investment and other areas of physics and computer science and engineering research that are relevant but aren’t captured. In the case of comparing to other nations investments. Those are sort of apples and oranges difficulty and also I think some of the numbers are reported that span multiple years. And so, you may hear that a country is investing €1 billion or, you know, $15 billion. In the case of China, that may be over several years, for example, and may include a large investment in physical infrastructure. So, I’m always a little cautious to compare these numbers side by side. I think it’s more useful to look at trends, and those are very helpful in seeing how the field is growing.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Doctor Celia Mertesacker. She is executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. And let’s maybe move on to why this matters in the first place. There’s lots of published white papers and analyzes saying that quantum will be essential to military superiority, which in some cases, when you’re talking about China, means national competitiveness and success.

Celia Merzbacher In quantum as an emerging technology. And perhaps this is true of most emerging technologies today, is a dual use technology and is going to inevitably have commercial and societal benefits, as well as applications that are relevant to government purposes, such as military, aerospace, space, and so on. So, there’s always both a national security interest as well as a global competitiveness and economic security interest. And those two interests are increasingly joined at the hip in a sense. So, we kind of have to deal with that. And we don’t want to prevent the beneficial use of quantum for developing new drugs, for instance, in the interest of protecting and limiting access to adversaries. So, the government needs to be thinking about it very sort of surgically and in a focused way when they think about how to protect national security interests while still developing the economic interests.

Tom Temin And what are some of the areas outside of quantum computing, which, again, is kind of nascent. And there are quantum computers, but they’re very tiny scale relative to how people envision them eventually in subzero, all these cold temperature ideas. But there’s some quantum technologies in the here and now that are deployed for very practical purposes. Fair to say.

Celia Merzbacher That’s absolutely correct. And this kind of goes back to your question about understanding quantum mechanics and the sort of foundational science and technology is really the science of very small scales, and that applies to all kinds of different fields and applications. For instance, quantum states of matter are very sensitive to the environment they’re in. And so that makes them naturally very good for sensing applications. And there are such applications ranging from atomic clocks which are measuring time, for instance. Those are already commercially available. They’re very important for navigation and timing applications, both in the military as well as in things like the financial sector. There also are sensors being developed, for instance, for biomedical applications. So, I would say quantum sensing is a general area that is already being developed and shows a lot of promise, probably in the near-term compared to quantum computing, which will take longer to develop just because of the additional challenges along that path.

Tom Temin And a quantum sensor. I mean, are these things the size of a thimble, the size of an orange juice can, or the size of a minibus?

Celia Merzbacher They range. But in some instances, and in the classic example, there was a DARPA program a number of years ago, now called chip scale atomic clocks, and took what is an atomic clock that can take a whole laboratory room and shrunk it down to a credit card size, and those are available commercially today. They were interested in it for putting it up on satellites and space platforms where size really is important, and weight and power requirements, for instance, the application that they didn’t envision and for which it’s being used today include undersea oil exploration, for instance. So, getting something smaller and more compact and requiring less power to operate is always going to open up all kinds of interesting applications.

Tom Temin Right. And I understand too, that there is application of this in space, because quantum materials behave differently in zero gravity than they do on the ground.

Celia Merzbacher Potentially. There’s a lot of materials science that is still an open to research. And that’s really, I would say, the kind of thing that government is, especially investing in. The government’s role in investments really focuses mainly at these fundamental questions. Once they get something sort of to a certain point, then it needs to move into, practical application. And that’s where the private sector can play a role.

Tom Temin It sounds like quantum does have in common with the semiconductor industry, the standard digital logic industry. The idea that you have to mix both information technology and material science and material processing to be able to come up with products.

Celia Merzbacher That’s right. There is a whole stack, if you want to use the computer analogy, from the sort of base materials, you know, manufacturing the circuits and the integrated circuits. And we don’t even really have the integrated circuit for quantum computers yet. But then there’s going to be the top of the stack where you have application software and middleware. And so, it’s very analogous in those ways to traditional, I guess, or classical computing.

Tom Temin And what should Congress do about this? Because there’s several quantum bills that have been passed. There’s some under contemplation now. So, it’s not like the leadership at the political level is unaware of all of this.

Celia Merzbacher It’s generally a very bipartisan area, and that’s great. The legislation that was passed in 2018 authorized the program for five years. So, we’re now in the process of waiting for Congress to reauthorize the program for an additional period of time. When that work was done five years ago, it was still mostly about investing in science and basic research. Here we are five years later, and it’s clear that the results of all that is starting to pay off, and there need to be bridges to the transition of the research results to application. And that’s something that is always there’s sort of a gray area. At some point the government needs to step back and private sector has to take over. And where that line is always sort of a debate. And there’s a matter of opinion with the passage of the CHIPS Act, for instance, clearly government is willing to invest in industrial areas that are of national interest and importance. And so it would be, I think, a good idea for the reauthorization of this program to include more of the investments that are needed to help carry things a little bit farther along, because otherwise they may never sort of cross into the application space.

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