Part of the wiring for the quantum computer at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
Photo: AP

President Donald Trump signed a bill last week providing over a billion dollars in funding to quantum research.

After more than three decades of research and work, scientists and tech companies have finally begun to develop technology that operates based on the mathematics of fundamental particles. Though these devices are rudimentary today, they could eventually offer impressive new computing capabilities and even threaten present-day cybersecurity. The new law, called the National Quantum Initiative Act, allocates up to $1.2 billion in funding to keep American quantum information science competitive on the global scale.

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Quantum mechanics is the set of rules by which fundamental particles like electrons interact with each other. Subatomic particles take on particle and wave properties simultaneously while they’re interacting—though they turn back into particles (or waves) once they’re observed. This means that they can enter superpositions, taking on multiple locations or identities at the same time; interfere, making some of these locations or identities more or less likely upon observation; and entangle, meaning multiple particles’ properties become correlated regardless of the distance between them. Quantum information science applies these rules to storing, transmitting, and computing with data, as well as making measurements.

Governments are interested in quantum research because a computer based on the fundamentals of quantum physics, called a quantum computer, could run an algorithm that factors numbers far more efficiently than a classical computer can. Such an algorithm would break the encryption that protects much of our data, and therefore would pose a national security threat. Quantum technology could even be useful in war, via the creation of state-of-the-art positioning systems. The technology may also have societal benefits—a quantum computer might one day beat a classical computer at simulating complex molecules for medical applications, for example.

The bill was one of two first introduced over the summer, and creates quantum infrastructure, including a National Quantum Coordination Office, a Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science, and a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee. It includes directives and $80,000,000 per year in funding from 2019 to 2023 for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It directs the National Science Foundation to create “at least 2, but not more than 5, Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education,” each of which would receive $10,000,000 per year from 2019 to 2023. And it directs the Department of Energy to create “at least 2, but not more than 5, National Quantum Information Science Research Centers,” each of which would receive $25,000,000 per year during the same period.

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It’s meant to serve as a coordinated effort to advance quantum science in the U.S., as the European Union and China have done. Some have pitched the race between other countries (especially China) and the United States to advance quantum technology as the next space race.

The bill highlights training scientists and a multidisciplinary approach—after all, the first quantum computers came about using the same biochemistry techniques employed by MRI machines. It mentions the Department of Defense only once, in an advisory role, despite the department funding early quantum computing efforts and concerns about the cybersecurity threats posed by quantum computing.

Despite promises, it’s still unclear as to when we’ll see real quantum applications that beat existing technology. And of course, nothing is happening so long as the government is shut down.

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[via MIT Tech Review]