October 24, 2020
US begins $1 billion quantum computing plan to get ahead of 'adversaries'

US begins $1 billion quantum computing plan to get ahead of ‘adversaries’


Google quantum computer

Quantum computing, as shown by this Google machine, is still in its infancy. A five-year US program aims to hasten its maturity by combining $625 million in federal funds and $340 in company contributions.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

When big technologies like mobile phones, 5G networks and e-commerce arrive, it’s important to get in on the ground floor. That’s why the US government is establishing 12 new research centers, funded with hundreds of millions of dollars, to boost artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Congress already has appropriated most of the funds for the projects. But the White House on Wednesday detailed what work will be done, the names of the labs and universities that competed to house the 12 centers, and the reasons it believes the two technologies are so important for the US economy and national security.

The Department of Energy’s five quantum computing centers, housed at US national laboratories, are funded by a five year, $625 million project bolstered by $340 million worth of help from companies including IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Applied Materials and Lockheed Martin. The funds came from the $1.2 billion allocated by the National Quantum Initiative Act, which President Donald Trump signed in 2018, but the private sector contributions add some new clout.

Artificial intelligence is already broadly used for tasks such as voice recognition and spam filtering, and it’s a top priority at Google, Facebook, Tesla and every other tech giant. Quantum computing is now a hotly competitive subject, and even though it’s very immature, plenty of researcher believe the weird physics of the ultrasmall will revolutionize the new materials development, financial predictions and delivery services. Although businesses are interested in both areas already, the government programs aim to boost more basic research than what’s already happening.

The idea is to link government, private and university research to accelerate key areas in the US. It’s the same recipe used for earlier US technology triumphs like the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in World War II, the Apollo program to send humans to the moon and the military-funded effort to establish what became the internet.

Challenging US ‘adversaries’

“The US will continue to be the home for the next great advancements in technology,” US Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said in a press conference. “We know our adversaries are pursuing their own advancements.”

US-led AI improvements wouldn’t stop the Chinese government from using face recognition to identify protesters in Hong Kong or members of the Uigher ethnic minority. But they could mean breakthroughs benefit US companies — both those building next-gen products and those using them. And AI has military applications like identifying targets.

When it comes to quantum computing, several national security uses are possible: navigation sensors that work even if GPS satellites are disabled; a new class of secure communications; and quantum computers that can decrypt others’ previously secure communications.

The US government has a big cautionary tale about American technology leadership: 5G. The biggest players building the important new mobile network technology are outside the US. That includes China-based Huawei, which the US considers a security risk.

Private sector already eager

The private sector already is sinking billions of dollars into AI and quantum computing research on their own. The federal funds will multiply those investments, helping reach areas beyond today’s commercialization plans.

“That’ll give us a road map beyond the next three to five years,” said Dario Gill, head of IBM’s quantum computing program.

The five quantum computing centers will be located at Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories. Areas of research include materials science, quantum networking and quantum sensor networks. 

The AI centers will be at universities, including the University of Oklahoma at Norman, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of California at Davis and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Advancing quantum practicality will be a team sport,” said James Clarke, Intel’s director of quantum hardware, in a statement.

Quantum sensors, networks and error correction

One big quantum computing partner from industry is IBM, which has been aggressively investing in the technology for years. It’s involved in three areas, Gil said.

First is the Brookhaven center’s work to improve quantum computing error correction, a key technology to making big, widely useful quantum computers. The Argonne center will work on quantum networking to link multiple quantum computers for greater power. And the Oak Ridge center will work on quantum algorithms, applications and sensors.

Although fierce competitors are involved, at the centers, the centers are for cooperative work.

“The idea is to do fundamental research, advance the state of the art, and share it,” Gil said.



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