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The White House wants to win the race to quantum supremacy

The Trump administration is reaching deep with funds for AI and quantum research to keep the U.S. in the driver's seat for the future of computing.

A man working on a quantum computer

One of IBM's quantum computers, technology that the company is racing to commercialize, along with competitors such as as Honeywell and D-Wave.

Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

The White House on Wednesday is announcing two new initiatives, partnering national resources with private industry and academia to further innovation in AI and quantum computing. The National Science Foundation will create seven AI research facilities across the U.S., and the Department of Energy will work with the country's national labs to build a "national quantum information center." The goal, according to participants, is to ensure the U.S.' dominance in AI and quantum information technology over other countries — especially China.

The new quantum centers fulfill the requirements of the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act, which called for the creation of centers for quantum research. The Department of Energy has established five of these centers at national labs, each tackling different aspects of the problem of trying to turn the idea of powerful quantum computers into a reality.

IBM, which first launched its commercial quantum computing business in 2017, is one of the private-industry partners involved. It'll be working with three of the five national labs chosen to take part in the initiative, including Brookhaven, Argonne and Oak Ridge (the two other labs involved are Fermi and Lawrence Berkeley). The Department of Energy will allot $625 million in funding to the five labs over the next five years, with the goal of tackling some of the most fundamental quandaries in quantum today.

At a high level, the problems fall into making quantum computers that work well, that can talk to each other, and that are relatively easy to use. At Brookhaven, along with academic partners like Caltech, CUNY, Columbia, Harvard, Howard, Johns Hopkins and MIT, researchers will attempt to make a breakthrough in error correction. The goal is to build quantum computers that have less noise in their output, making them more-reliable computing devices, which is currently a massive stumbling block. "Realizing the promise of quantum computing, you need to ultimately build machines that can compute without errors," IBM's research director Dario Gil said.

At Argonne, along with Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, Intel, Boeing and Microsoft, the team will be working on building a sort of quantum intranet, figuring out how to connect together multiple machines in the same way processors are connected in a modern server farm.

At Oak Ridge, the task will be to build applications that can actually run on these machines, so that more than a handful of quantum physicists and deeply knowledgeable programmers can harness the potential of quantum computers. "I'd say there's on the magnitude of a low-five-digit number of people who can usefully use one of these things," James Sanders, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence's 451 Research, told Protocol. "That's the requirement this industry is going to face, bringing the domain experts together with quantum physicists to develop the algorithms that would be useful for businesses."

"Broadly speaking, the manufacturing of quantum computers for the most part was already done in the U.S. Having people who can actually program them usefully is altogether a different question, because of how specialized this field is," Sanders said.

The NSF plans to delve into fundamental AI research as well, including machine learning, but also many areas where AI could transform society. For instance, the University of Oklahoma, Norman, is leading a team to research climate and weather forecasting using AI, and teams at UC Davis and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are both delving into how AI can help us more effectively feed future generations with new crop designs and advanced robotics.

Quantum computing is still in its earliest days, even less further along than ENIAC was when compared to today's smartphones, let alone modern supercomputers. Although companies like IBM, Honeywell and D-Wave are all vying to commercialize the industry as it emerges, it's still trying to agree upon things like the best ways of measuring the performance of any given quantum computer. It's why things like this initiative are so important, according to Gil, as they lay the groundwork for future innovations, comparing this effort to what the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors has done for classical computers. "We care deeply that we succeed together; we want a quantum industry to emerge," Gil said. "The impact to society will be huge."

Solving quantum's toughest problems could alter the way the world researches. Current supercomputers have been used to effectively rule out the need to live-test nuclear weapons again. Quantum computers that could either compute things far faster than classical machines, or things they couldn't compute at all, could have similar impacts on research like drug discovery, materials science, the development of new battery technology, climate forecasting and myriad other world-changing applications. But getting to this point requires a national effort, Gil argued, especially when things like the current pandemic and climate change can get worse the longer we have to wait to come up with solutions. "Achieving what we used to be able to do in a decade in a year, that's essential to our future," Gil said.

But while quantum computing could potentially unlock transformative changes in our world, the Trump administration has put a particular focus on quantum computing and AI research for another reason. Trump's latest budget set ambitious goals for quantum research over the next few years, but slashed funding for other basic research. That was partially driven by one of the president's most common targets: China. The Middle Kingdom has been investing heavily into quantum, especially quantum cryptography, which could alter the balance of power online if one country figures out how to break into even the most hardened modern security programs.

"It is absolutely imperative the United States continues to lead the world on AI and quantum. We know our adversaries around the world are pursuing their own advances," White House CTO Michael Kratsios said on a call with reporters Tuesday. "The future of American economic prosperity and national security will be shaped by how we invest, research, develop and deploy these cutting-edge technologies today."

Although the current initiative is only funded through five years, Gil is bullish that we'll see progress in all the areas the labs are tackling this decade. "We need many breakthroughs, but it's amazing what's happening now," Gil said. Sanders, however, thinks progress is going to be far slower: "It's going to be a multi-decade endeavor," he said. "It would require advances in manufacturing the hardware that goes inside a quantum computer, and a deeper understanding of the physics behind all of this stuff."

Putting U.S. minds on the task of quantum and AI may go some way to helping keep America at the forefront of computational research and security, but even participants in this initiative such as Gil warn about cutting off funding for science more generally. "We need to reset America's commitment to science," he said. Gil was recently appointed to the National Science Foundation's board, and called for a deeper pursuit of science in the U.S.

"There is a revolution in computing happening, and we need to make sure that not only we lead, but that we apply those advances to how we do science," Gil said.

Additional reporting by Issie Lapowsky.

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