Chip going into Capitol building
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Welcome to the new US-China tech war

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Good morning! The passage of the $76 billion Chips Act could help the U.S. regain its foothold in semiconductor production. But its passage didn’t come easily, which could spell trouble for what comes next.

The Chips Act is a new front in the war

The U.S. will soon dominate the semiconductor world once again.

That is, if you believe the backers of the Chips Act and are willing to wait many years. The legislation, which advanced out of Congress last week and is heading to President Biden for his signature, will provide $76 billion in funding to help spur American semiconductor production.

Wave your red, white and blue flag, everyone. And write the thank-you notes to Intel, which needs all the cheering up it can get right now.

  • The increasingly important role of semiconductors, along with worries that China may invade Taiwan — the home of TSMC and the commanding leader in terms of chip production — amped up pressure on Congress to advance the Chips Act.

But its passage also signals an important new front in a bigger technology tussle between the U.S. and China. And outside of semiconductors and AI, there is a longer and potentially globe-altering research race underway that, while nascent, is progressing faster than some experts predicted.

  • Quantum is an advanced form of computing that is immensely complicated but effectively has the potential to make calculations deemed impossible today suddenly doable in seconds. It’s very much at risk of being over-hyped, but quantum could open up a whole arena of applications that aren’t even imaginable right now. Trippy, I know.
  • It remains very much in the research stage. But it’s beginning to creep into businesses. And vendors are also experimenting with early commercial pricing models, indicating that wider adoption may not be as far off as once predicted. Companies like JPMorgan Chase are even staffing up to prepare.
  • “We can conceive of a future that has used this technology to do some profound things,” Quantinuum president Tony Uttley told me. “From an economic security standpoint, countries are thinking: ‘I can’t miss out on this.’”

China’s progress on quantum computing is largely unknown. Like AI, it’s expected that the Chinese government is investing heavily in the technology, to the tune of billions of dollars.

  • Of course, China isn’t the only country investing in quantum. Japan, the U.K. and the EU are all increasing investment in developing the technology.
  • The U.S. is also supporting quantum research — including through the Chips Act — but the efforts are diverse across the federal agencies, and company executives say it’s unclear exactly where the money is ultimately going.
  • But China appears to be at a much more advanced stage. Industry insiders say the government has put forward a clear directive that links the maturity of quantum to the country’s economic and national security future.
  • “Work we are seeing coming out of China is tantalizingly promising,” said Mark Mattingley-Scott, general manager at Quantum Brilliance. “But who knows. Really, who knows. It’s almost impossible to get a realistic view.”

That should be a catalyst to get Congress to act, proponents argue. But it’s not that easy. And replicating the success of anything close to the Chips Act in the future will be difficult.

  • It already had to overcome significant skepticism from both far-right and far-left lawmakers who questioned why Congress was sending so much money to companies with annual revenues over $75 billion.
  • But it was an intense lobbying effort. Private companies — including Intel, which tried to tepidly extort lawmakers into acting — lobbied hard, arguing that the funding was necessary to jumpstart an iconic American industry that has since been trampled by Asian rivals.

It worked. And that will advance the global tech war to a new level. The question is, though, how far the U.S. — where the sort of corporate handout that has made China’s progress possible is increasingly shunned — is willing to go to fund tech that may not be viable for years, if not decades.

  • Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft all have a finger in quantum. Given the hatred of Big Tech right now, it seems unlikely there would be any major effort to help prop up research or commercialization efforts at those giants.
  • But there’s a vibrant startup ecosystem that could benefit from, say, the federal government becoming a customer of early prototypes. That could become especially important as investment funding dries up across Silicon Valley.
  • “That climate has changed in the last six months dramatically,” ColdQuanta President Chester Kennedy said. Perhaps the Chips Act will be “a wake-up call that can have broader ramifications and help people understand that we are sitting on the next major driver of technology.”

It’s too high of a bar to expect lawmakers to be deeply aware of the quantum advancements underway. But even an effort to align the government on a clear strategy around the tech would be a major improvement.

No one would ever argue that Congress is a functional body. But if there’s one thing the institution has proved to be adept at, it’s ordering other people to do something.

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