The possibilities of quantum computing have been floating on the horizon for a while now, at least since renowned physicist Richard Feynman dreamed up the idea in 1982. But like the horizon itself (at least in a world that isn’t flat), it always seems to recede despite all efforts to close in on it. Until now.
IBM two years ago made a 5-qubit quantum machine available via the cloud and has since developed a 50-qubit chip prototype. Industry giants such as Microsoft, Intel, and Google also are working on quantum computers, as are a number of startups. While quantum computers aren’t commonplace yet, most of those companies agree that five years is a doable target for going mainstream.
The defense and intelligence communities have taken note. One concern is that quantum computers could soon be able to crack even the most advanced cryptography, Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), told reporters recently. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is also on the case, launching an effort to develop post-quantum cryptography two years ago while worrying that it was starting too late.
And as with other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, U.S. leaders are worried that China is taking the lead, sinking $10 billion into its National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. The Chinese lab is due to open in 2020. China even launched what it said is the first quantum satellite in 2016. By contrast, U.S. spending on quantum research reportedly is about $200 million a year.
While the Department of Defense is conducting its own research and development projects into quantum computing, a bill introduced this month in the Senate is calling for a concerted national effort, with DoD leading a consortium of industry, academic, and government institutions in a kind of Manhattan Project toward gaining quantum supremacy.
The Quantum Computing Research Act of 2018, introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would have DoD award grants, arrange partnerships, and supervise research efforts on two geographic fronts, with the Office of Naval Research administering the program in the eastern half of the country, and the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) overseeing efforts in the west.
The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and ARL have their own quantum programs, such as NRL’s research into solid state quantum computing and quantum information, and ARL’s Center for Distributed Quantum Information. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also is working to use quantum to extend the life of sensors and other devices by as much as 100 times.
But the biggest strides in quantum computing development have come from industry, which has come close to unlocking its potential to, for instance, create unbreakable codes that could fend off even quantum hacking, take artificial intelligence into new cognitive realms, and simulate physical processes down to subatomic layers. IBM’s 50-qubit machine, for instance, and a 49-qubit machine made by Intel, are at the threshold of what researchers have said is the minimum number of qubits necessary to outperform–by a wide margin–the biggest and fastest supercomputers.
Not that it’s easy. At a basic definition, quantum computing’s qubits can exist in a “superposition” of 1 and 0 simultaneously, as opposed to the bits in traditional computing, which exist as either 1 or 0. When in a quantum coherent state, the qubits are entangled in a way that exponentially accelerates their processing power. More qubits means much more computing power, but also makes maintaining a coherent state that much more difficult.
Quantum computing still has a way to go, but recent progress is putting it on the front burner. “Quantum computing is the next technological frontier that will change the world, and we cannot afford to fall behind,” Sen. Harris said in a statement introducing the Senate bill. “And without adequate research and coordination in quantum computing, we risk falling behind our global competition in the cyberspace race, which leaves us vulnerable to attacks from our adversaries.”