Eyeing a National Quantum Initiative

Christopher Monroe at U.S. House hearing

Chris Monroe of the University of Maryland testifies at the recent U.S. House joint hearing on quantum technology. [Image: U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]

30 October 2017—Last week, two subpanels of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives held a joint hearing that cast the spotlight on the nation’s place in a hot emerging area, quantum information technology. And squarely in that spotlight was the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), a representative of which argued strongly at the hearing for a new US$500 million public-private partnership focused on quantum science.

The hearing—“American Leadership in Quantum Technology,” jointly convened by the House science committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology and its Subcommittee on Energy—included testimony from three government scientists and three representatives of academia and industry, all of them with different interests in the promise of quantum information research. And all six witnesses sounded the theme that the United States may be losing the race for quantum technologies to other countries or regions, especially China, Europe and Canada.

The arguments for an NQI

Of special interest to the photonics community was the testimony of Christopher Monroe, a professor in the physics department of the University of Maryland and also the founder and chief scientist of IonQ, a company seeking to commercialize the trapped-ion quantum-computing technology emerging from Monroe’s lab. Monroe represented the NPI, an industry-academia-government collaboration formed in 2013 to boost visibility, support and funding for photonic science and business in the U.S. (OSA is one of five scientific societies leading the NPI.)

Monroe’s testimony echoed the themes of a June 2017 NPI white paper, A Call for a National Quantum Initiative, that he coauthored with OSA Fellow Michael Raymer of the University of Oregon. The white paper argued for a half-billion-dollar U.S. public investment to create four “quantum innovation labs” to serve as testbeds for quantum technologies, and for other coordinated activities to define quantum technology standards and to build formal and informal, lab-scale partnerships among the government sector, academia and industry.

These investments and this level of coordination, the white paper and Monroe’s testimony argued, would provide needed infrastructure and human capital to “boostrap the quantum economy” in the U.S. In particular, the envisioned NQI, according to the white paper, would focus on three quantum technology “pillars”: advanced electronic and photonic sensors built on quantum technology; optical quantum communication networks; and quantum computing.

“Owning” quantum technology

One interesting aspect of Monroe’s testimony was that it laid out a clear route for U.S. government action to support quantum science. That could prove an important advantage for the NQI concept, as other testimony hammered at the theme that U.S. quantum science—while active in a variety of institutional and government programs and in the activities of specific firms such as Google, IBM and Microsoft—lacks a guiding strategic hand.

That lack of guidance, witnesses at the hearing warned, could hamstring the U.S. in quantum relative to the activities of other countries. For example, witnesses cited the activities of China, a country in which researchers have recently scored some headline-grabbing success in the drive toward global quantum communications networks, and which is now building a US$10 billion research center for quantum applications. Canada’s national research structure has supported quantum technology for years through a system of photonic and quantum technology hubs and institutes. The European Union last year launched a €1 billion research program in quantum information, computing and communications, and the United Kingdom has a well-established program of quantum research as well.

The hearing witnesses thus framed their call for more government support within the larger theme of national competitiveness, in keeping with the “America first” keynote also struck in the Trump administration’s recent declarations on science priorities. Scott Crowder of IBM Systems Group testified that the U.S. investment in quantum “is not sufficient to stay competitive” given the efforts of other countries and regions leading the charge. And, in a formulation apt to raise eyebrows abroad, Carl Williams of NIST told the joint hearing that the United States “has to figure out how we end up owning this technology, in the same way we owned the technology for the transistor.”

In addition to Monroe, Crowder and Williams, the joint session also included testimony from Jim Kurose of the U.S. National Science Foundation, John S. Binkley of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Supratik Guha of the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory.

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