Futuristic machines that rely on quantum mechanics to solve complex problems, known as quantum computers, have been touted as technology disrupters that could one day transform entire industries. Some of the world’s biggest companies say they are developing such systems — IBM, Google and Lockheed Martin, to name a few — though they say they are years away from being able to use them for practical purposes.
In the meantime, the industry’s early players are enlisting influential lobbyists to sell the concept as a national imperative, arguing that America risks falling behind China if it does not take a more concerted approach.
Computing hardware pioneer IBM wheeled a towering replica of its own quantum computer into the Rayburn House Office Building last week, where company lobbyists and technical experts schmoozed with sharply dressed congressional staffers. The next morning a consortium of physicists and industry representatives organized by the trade group National Photonics Initiative met at the offices of BGR Group, a lobbying firm, to discuss existing federal programs, according to a person who was at the meeting.
A separate lobbying group called the Quantum Industry Coalition is bringing together 14 of the industry’s early players to influence legislation on the matter. The coalition doesn’t have a website yet, but it says it counts some of the technology world’s biggest players among its membership: Microsoft, Intel and Lockheed Martin, as well as a handful of start-ups.
The coalition’s goal is to help the fledgling U.S. quantum computing industry — which promises to transform entire economies but as of yet has no known viable product — move from theories to products.
“We wanted to have an exclusively corporate voice, one that represents the U.S. quantum industry community — and only that community,” said Paul Stimers, a partner at the law firm K&L Gates who founded the coalition. “We are pushing the legislation as much as we can in two directions: One is more of a focus on applied research as opposed to theoretical research, and the other is workforce development.”
They are trying to shepherd parallel legislation in the House and Senate.
On June 7, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) introduced the Quantum Computing Research Act of 2018, which calls for a federal research consortium funded by the Defense Department. It is now being considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And staffers for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), say they are preparing to introduce a similar bill in the House called the National Quantum Initiative Act. A fact sheet published by the committee describes setting up a White House “National Quantum Coordination Office” to manage the government’s disparate funding efforts and help form partnerships between industry and government.
“The goal of this is to go beyond ad hoc research and take a more systematic approach,” said Dario Gil, a physicist who oversees artificial intelligence and quantum computing programs at IBM.
Mainstream physicists have pointed to a range of potentially transformative uses for quantum computers. Some physicists say quantum computers could break common data encryption algorithms by virtue of their ability to factor large numbers. Others say they could transform financial markets and reinvent business processes by solving now-impossible optimization problems.
Quantum computing “is capable of being as important to the 21st century as any technology was to the 20th century,” said Matthew Putman, who runs New York-based Nanotronics.
They admit, however, that today’s quantum computers seem like little more than ultraexpensive science projects.
“We have quantum computers today, but they’re not solving any problem that you couldn’t solve with a classical computer,” said David Moehring, a quantum physicist who oversaw quantum research projects at IARPA, the U.S. intelligence community’s advanced research and development organization. Moehring is now chief executive of IonQ, a College Park, Md.-based start-up that is building a quantum-based system of its own with investment funding from New Enterprise Associates, Google Ventures and Amazon Web Services.
Potential uses for such systems, while unproven, are attracting an increasingly crowded field of tech companies hoping to be first to market. QuantumComputingReport.com, an industry website, lists 19 publicly traded companies, 64 start-ups and 58 investment funds that claim to be engaged in the issue.
They include large companies such as IBM, whose technicians say the market could materialize in three to five years. Start-ups sporting names such as Qnami and QSpice Labs are working on related software and systems that can enable the machines’ use. A handful of start-ups have machines of their own, including IonQ and Canadian start-up D-Wave Systems.
The industry’s advocates are pitching quantum technology as part of a geopolitical great power competition, arguing that whichever country develops a fully functional quantum computer first will have a distinct technological advantage over its rivals.
“Quantum is essential for our national security, for our data security and for our economic security,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney (R-Calif.), who attended Tuesday’s reception. “If we don’t [invest in quantum computing research], we’re going to fall behind other countries.”
The Chinese government has apparently committed billions of dollars to quantum research, according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper.
Those investments may be yielding results. A team of Chinese physicists recently reported that they had successfully sent intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to a ground location, reflecting a phenomenon known as “spooky action.”
The U.S. government has quantum research and development efforts of its own. A 2016 report from a White House-convened research consortium found total public U.S. funding for quantum research to be about $200 million a year. There may be significantly more work taking place in secret: Documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by The Washington Post in 2014 revealed that the spy agency pursued a $79.7 million project to develop a “cryptographically useful quantum computer,” funded under classified contracts at a lab in College Park.