Lucas Ashbaugh is an intern with the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The quantum race is on, and the stakes are high. The winner will gain a military and intelligence edge, as well as a first mover advantage in what is guaranteed to be a massive industry for decades to come. Europe and China have both been pumping government funds into the industry, and after some wrangling on Capitol Hill, the United States is throwing its hat into the ring.
Thanks to quantum computing, computers are about to become unfathomably powerful. Instead of relying on transistors and binary signals as is the case with current computers, quantum computers use microwaves and quantum particles to explore multiple calculations simultaneously. This allows quantum computers to be blazingly fast. One prototype quantum computer proved 100 million times faster than its normal counterparts, and these speeds have numerous applications. Likewise, quantum technologies will also be applied more broadly than in just computers, reinventing many devices and technical standards.
Quantum computers will be able to simulate previously impossibly large chemical reactions, leading to new materials and medicines. Intensely precise sensors and clocks will enable disruption-proof navigational technologies, radars, and more. Previously challenging optimization problems, such as analyzing complex sets of variables to find the best asset allocation for an investment portfolio, will be within the realm of feasibility. The first country to successfully commercialize quantum technologies will gain a huge first mover advantage, both in quantum devices and in all of the discoveries the technology will unlock.
Quantum computers will also have a large impact on cybersecurity. Current cryptographic methods focus on using complex math to scramble data into unintelligible content. With their incredibly fast processing speeds, quantum computers will be able to rapidly decrypt content into readable data, making current cryptographic methods trivial to break. Quantum physics will also be able to provide better encryption than what is currently possible, creating systems that alert users if anyone tries to eavesdrop.
U.S. tech giants, including IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Google, were among the first to pick up on quantum’s value. Last year IBM built one of the largest quantum computers to date, and their user-friendly quantum computing service is already available for free via the cloud. Google announced its plan to reach quantum supremacy, and Microsoft announced it is very close to releasing its own quantum computer and possibly has an improved design from other tech giants. U.S. companies face fierce competitors from abroad. Alibaba also offers quantum computing services via the cloud and Baidu aims to be a global leader in quantum computing software within the next five years.
A healthy amount of private sector competition is good for the industry, but Chinese and European companies have been receiving heavy government assistance. The European Commission has issued a Quantum Manifesto and is pursuing its $1.13 billion quantum technologies strategic plan. Europe has defined their focus on ‘near-to-market’ quantum technologies that offer commercial benefits, such as communications networks, ultra-sensitive cameras, and software to interact with quantum devices. A step ahead of Europe is China, which is investing $10 billion into its National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, set to open in 2020. China has successfully facilitated a two-way quantum secured video call from Beijing to Vienna using its Micius satellite and inaugurated the first long distance quantum landline.
The United States has led in quantum research over the past few decades, but these advancements haven’t necessarily translated into commercial applications. Companies have been challenged to find properly educated employees, and diffuse research efforts have thrived in academia but proven stubbornly difficult to commercialize. Hopefully this is about to change, Congress recently increased funding to everything quantum, despite a proposal from the Donald J. Trump administration to cut science research and development deeply in the 2018 budget.
Congressional funding will be most successful if it emphasizes the critical tools available to help commercialize quantum. Greater job training programs could increase the country’s talent pool, and more test bed centers would allow aspiring professionals a chance to gain real hands-on experience with quantum technologies. By alleviating these challenges, the United States would be well poised to lead the race.
Commercializing quantum technologies may very well prove the most significant scientific achievement of the twenty first century. China, Europe, and the United States are all in the running, but the standings are close. Congress is right to fund quantum tech and will hopefully keep it up. This is a race the United States cannot afford to lose.