The May 14 Commentary essay, Miracle Machine needs fuel, co-authored by Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, touted quantum computing as an upcoming revolutionary technology with the capability to affect our lives in major ways, and argued that government support for its development is essential. Schmidt is correct: The time is right for a major U.S. investment in quantum computing.
Most technologies that benefit us resulted from earlier science breakthroughs, many of which were enabled by government investment. For example, the Internet was invented by university and industry scientists supported by federal government grants. When it became operational, it was supported further through infrastructure investments for many years until private corporations saw the benefit of taking it on.
Now an international race is on to see who can create the first working quantum computer and to put it to beneficial uses.
What is quantum computing, and how is it revolutionary?
A quantum computer would be able to compute answers to many important problems that no ordinary computer could handle: designing new industrial materials, determining the optimal molecular structures of pharmaceutical drugs, monitoring patterns of activity in communication networks, searching databases and other yet-to-be discovered applications.
Ordinary computers store each bit of information in the states of miniature electrical switches. A switch can be on or off to represent a bit of data. A program of switching these on and off drives a computers operation.
A quantum computer would store information in quantum switches, or qubits, which can in a sense be in the on state and the off state simultaneously. This gives quantum computers unique capabilities.
The challenges to building working quantum computers are formidable. Controlling qubits is extremely difficult because they can be disrupted by any unwanted outside influence.
Scientists have yet to create a quantum computer, but they are getting closer. They have learned how to tame qubits and entice them to perform the needed steps to carry out calculations using quantum principles.
Some leading companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and Intel, have begun investing in efforts to construct quantum computers. But a gap exists between the kind of trained experts the companies need and the available scientific labor pool. What is needed are quantum engineers, and industry is not in a position to train such a workforce. And, really, at this point no one has the engineering know-how to build quantum computers.
Other kinds of quantum technologies are also on the horizon. Quantum communication technologies have been invented that can promise complete security against messages being intercepted and read while in transit over the Internet. Quantum-based gravity sensors and accelerometers can be used in geo-exploration and in navigation where GPS is unavailable. And quantum magnetic-field sensors can enhance medical diagnostic technology and research.
For these reasons, I recently became involved with a wide cohort of scientists and engineers in industry, government laboratories and universities who are calling for a major national investment in developing the engineering framework and scientific workforce needed to bring quantum technologies to fruition. This would be a quantum moonshot effort, like the government-funded Human Genome Project, which now affects medical research and practice in big ways, and creates growth in the economy.
Following a meeting last fall at the White House Office of Science and Technology, some of us began working together and with professional scientific societies to encourage a major federal investment in quantum technologies, including quantum computers.
The U.S. is playing catch up, as European governments are investing around $2 billion and it is believed Chinas investment in quantum technology is moving quickly, including the launch of a quantum-enabled satellite.
It would be nice if we could leave it up to the private sector to create the first quantum computer, but there are limits to what industry can achieve on its own. Its easy to say that taxpayers shouldnt have to foot the bill for science and engineering, but in many cases these investments provide exponential returns to the people who pay for them. The Internet, GPS, medical imagers, and countless other innovations have come about thanks to federally funded basic and applied research.
Ultimately, these partnerships benefit the taxpayers, private industry and society. The same kind of successes can be had with quantum technology, but only if we commit to a race whose finish is far closer than once thought.
To hear about the development of quantum computers from one of the pioneers in the field, you can attend the free public lecture at 7 p.m. May 30 by Nobel prize-winning physicist David Wineland, in the Straub Hall auditorium on the University of Oregon campus.
Michael Raymer, a University of Oregon professor of physics, is the author of Quantum Physics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
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