A few days before Christmas, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that devotes more than US $1.2 billion to a national effort dedicated to quantum information science over the next 10 years. The National Quantum Initiative Act represents a bipartisan U.S. government push to keep up with China and other countries in developing technologies such as quantum computing, quantum cryptography, and quantum communication—all of which have some potential to upset the balance of economic and military power in the world.
Quantum computing has drawn special attention for its potential to someday crack the modern computer algorithms that protect government and corporate secrets. But investments in quantum science may also deliver breakthroughs that could help cement U.S. technological leadership and national security—or undermine them if another country develops a given quantum technology first. Notably, China has paid special attention to investing in quantum science as a way of bypassing traditional technological advantages enjoyed by the United States.
“It’s clear that China is taking advantage of what it sees as a historic opportunity to not only catch up with but leapfrog ahead of the United States,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., during a recent press event.
But it’s more of a marathon than a sprint, Kania explained. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine acknowledged as much in a recent report that suggests a general-purpose quantum computer is still more than a decade away. Engineers must still figure out how to build much larger arrays of fragile qubits that remain stable long enough to perform useful computations.
Those implications go well beyond quantum computing. Advances in quantum communications and cryptography could produce theoretically unhackable networks. Quantum radar and sensing could unmask the location of stealth aircraft and underwater submarines. And quantum navigation could provide precision geolocation capabilities without reliance on space-based GPS.
Kania laid out many of China’s nationally-backed research efforts into such quantum technologies in a CNAS report that she wrote with John Costello of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in September.
China’s national ambitions take a quantum leap
China’s interest in quantum technologies goes hand-in-hand with China’s anxiety over U.S. intelligence capabilities and surveillance activities within its borders, said Kania. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has emphasized the strategic importance of quantum technologies and even singled out Chinese success in quantum computing during his January 2018 New Year’s address.
Described as a “relative latecomer” to the quantum marathon, China’s scientists and engineers have more recently enjoyed access to “nearly unlimited resources” in their development of quantum science and technology, according to the CNAS report. Despite a lack of detailed information about national funding for such Chinese efforts, Kania and Costello estimate that “recent and current levels of funding will amount to billions of dollars.”
Such state-backed funding has translated into a string of much-publicized milestones in Chinese research. In August 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite as a test platform for quantum communications links between space and Earth. It also completed a 2,000-kilometer fiber optic backbone stretching between Beijing and Shanghai for a ground-based quantum network in 2016.
Chinese researchers went on to demonstrate several notable early steps in using their satellite to test quantum encryption and setting a distance record for entanglement between qubits involved in communication in 2017.
Another glimpse into China’s national strategy comes from the realm of quantum radar. In September 2016, Chinese researchers reported a new record in developing quantum radar with improved accuracy in detecting targets up to 100 kilometers away—a range that is reportedly five times that of a lab prototype developed by an international team in 2015. Chinese researchers have said their next version of quantum radar would be able to detect stealth bombers and potentially track ballistic missiles.
“China has launched an extremely ambitious program, and so has Europe, the UK, Australia, and Canada,” says David Awschalom, a professor in spintronics and quantum information at the University of Chicago. “All of these have national programs, so it’s a good time for the United States to do it, too.”
U.S. assembles quantum building blocks
It’s sometimes hard for researchers elsewhere to evaluate the achievements of China’s national program for quantum science and technology. But the U.S. national program could help keep the country on a competitive footing in all areas of quantum technology development. For example, quantum communications and sensing applications could become a reality within the next five years, Awschalom says.
Along those lines, the United States has already begun building quantum encryption and communication networks over medium distances. One notable example is 48-kilometer quantum network connecting Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Together with the University of Chicago, the federal labs have formed a Chicago Quantum Exchange collaboration directed by Awschalom.
Such U.S. efforts could get supercharged by the National Quantum Initiative Act sailed through both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in December with bipartisan support, notwithstanding a broader political fight over government budgetary concerns that overshadowed the legislation.
The U.S. National Quantum Initiative charges various government bodies—including NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—with creating a road map for quantum science and technology. But it’s far from just a government-directed effort. Awschalom described the program as having been carefully crafted with input from U.S. industry and academia.
The national program also gives the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy the task of each establishing between two and five centers dedicated to basic research and education in quantum information science.
Breaking out of the lab
It’s especially important to get company researchers involved, Awschalom says, to help translate lab discoveries and prototypes into commercial products and services. Having worked at IBM, he observed that Silicon Valley’s recent interest in quantum computing and related technologies has provided a healthy resurgence in company-backed basic research jobs.
Developing talent is crucial for any country involved in quantum research. A U.S. national program for quantum science and technology may help ensure the “consistent and basic levels of funding” to attract and retain leading researchers, according to the CNAS report.
The report also recommends that the U.S. National Science Foundation establish a scholarship program with a service commitment that encourages students to pursue careers in quantum science. Similarly, it suggests creating a U.S. national laboratory for quantum science and technology that could promote private-public collaborations with funding for long-term research projects.
“Our students and graduate students shouldn’t all expect to be in academia—they should be spread throughout national laboratories and companies,” Awschalom says. “Many of my own students are working at IBM and Google, and they’re loving it.”
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.