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The race to build a quantum economy

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Venture capitalists, corporations and the federal government are investing in quantum computers, a powerful new generation of machines that one day could help develop new drugs and decrypt secrets.

The big picture: The problems such devices can solve today are still limited. But the technologies are advancing and as China invests heavily in the field, some researchers and policymakers in the U.S. are calling for a national plan to develop fundamental research into commercial products

What's new:

"It's a quantum summer."
— Chris Monroe, IonQ and the University of Maryland

How it works: Quantum technologies — sensing, communications and computing — all leverage fundamental properties of atoms and their subatomic particles to process and transmit information.

  • The goal: In principle, quantum physics can give us ultra-precise clocks and sensors, more secure communications, and powerful computers that surpass today's classical machines in solving certain problems.
  • The reality: Physics and engineering are messy. Today's quantum devices require ultra-low temperatures or isolation in a vacuum to operate effectively.
  • The status: Quantum systems with up to a few hundred quantum bits (qubits) — the equivalent of bits in a classical computer — exist. But fully programming a quantum computer requires controlling the qubits and running algorithms. Right now, just a handful of qubits can be strung together to perform a basic computation.
  • The big picture: Quantum computers aren't likely to end up in your home or replace conventional ones at the tasks they've mastered.
  • Instead, Dario Gil, IBM's VP of AI and IBM Q, says the future of computing involves three areas: the next generation of the classical computers we have today, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing that can solve problems that are intractable for the other two.

Tech advances

In the past five years, quantum devices have been built by IBM, Intel, Google and Microsoft as well as university researchers and startups like Rigetti Computing and IonQ. They've been used to simulate small molecules and how matter behaves, and in combination with classical computers, to run algorithms for machine learning.

Keep in mind: It's still a speculative field, says Monroe, who co-authored a blueprint for the anticipated House bill. "To get to the promised land, where we get something useful, [quantum computers] will have to be run by a third party," he says. "It can't require a bunch of researchers."

  • He says quantum computing won't get interesting until there are 100-qubit machines that can solve logistics problems— for example, how best to route a trucking network. "That's how you find a market," says Monroe. "It may be 10 years."

Here comes China (again)

The E.U., Canada, Australia and the U.K. are all investing in developing quantum technologies — and are potential sources for U.S. collaboration — but they don't match China's scale of investment.

"[Other nations] are all behind the U.S. — comfortably so — but they're improving at a pace that is alarming, especially China," says Monroe.

What they're doing: China is reportedly investing $10 billion in a Los Alamos-esque National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science, slated to open in 2020.

  • Last summer, a team led by physicist Pan Jianwei demonstrated advances in quantum communications to securely send information. Other researchers there claim they've created a quantum radar system for stealth submarine surveillance.
  • Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are all investing heavily in quantum computing and attracting top researchers from around the world.
"It's clear over the last few years that Chinese leadership prioritizes quantum technology. No other nation has invested as much in building quantum communications up."
— Elsa Kania from the Center for a New American Security

P.S. International cooperation with Australia, Canada and the U.K. is key, says Michael Brett, CEO of QxBranch. "They have incredible resources and talent. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to pursue this as a purely national initiative without collaboration with close partners."

Help wanted

For quantum-enabled technologies to be realized, the U.S. needs a workforce with new skills, says Tomasz Durakiewicz, a program director at the National Science Foundation, which spent about $45 million on quantum information sciences in 2017 and would receive additional funding under the House bill.

The required skills include: electronic engineering, advanced coding and at least a fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics.

"We don’t produce people like that," says Durakiewicz.

The U.S. will need "quantum natives who are accustomed to thinking differently," says Gil. "We need to step up our game so they can tinker and play with [quantum computers] along way."

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