By encoding information as quantum bits (“qubits”) instead of binary 0s and 1s, quantum computers have the potential to be millions of times more powerful than today’s most powerful supercomputers. This has tremendous implications for a wide range of fields, from cybersecurity, cryptography, and national security to commercial applications powering innovation and productivity in industry. ITIF recently hosted a conversation to discuss the future implications of quantum computing across various industries. A panel of industry and government experts considered what policies nations need to implement—often in conjunction with industry—to keep themselves at the forefront of the coming quantum economy.
Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at ITIF, introduced the event with a primer on what quantum computing is and where the technology is headed. Unlike classic computers, which process information in gigaflops (billions of floating-point operations per second), a 30-qubit quantum computer has the potential to run at 10 teraflops, or 10 trillion floating-point operations per second. By leveraging quantum properties of superposition, a quantum machine can perform many tasks at once, a feature known as “parallelism,” potentially making quantum computers vastly more powerful than even the fastest supercomputers in existence today. But for this amount of processing power to have practical applications, we must determine a way to control and read those qubits.
Landon Downs, president and co-founder of 1QBit, explained that quantum computing has the potential to cause large systemic changes, like other historical developments in the computational paradigms that have gone before (e.g., mainframes to minicomputers to PCs and now mobile computing). “The applications for the systems are everywhere,” Downs explained. Some of these changes have already begun. Lockheed Martin assumes substantial risk associated with creating new products, chief scientist Ned Allen explained. The science team invests significant time and money in the verification and validation processes of each new cyber-physical machine (everything from driverless cars to F-35 fighter jets). The growing Internet of Things has further complicated this process. Lockheed Martin has since purchased a D-Wave Systems adiabatic quantum computer to explore the impact high-speed processing may have on its costs, productivity, and competitiveness. When describing lessons learned, Allen said that quantum computers today are not going to be used in isolation, but instead in conjunction with classical tools, something he referred to as “quassical computing.”
In today’s economy, the most capable and competitive system model is not purely quantum, concluded Allen. However, Robert Wisnieff, department group manager for solutions development in quantum computing at IBM, said the pivot toward quantum research and understanding shows the desire in the STEM community to embrace quantum and explore the possibilities. The most notable industries where this can be easily applied range from quantitative finance, to computational biology, to national security and safety improvements, and finally to machine learning and artificial intelligence. Exponentially higher speeds will optimize products and services in new ways, driving competition in its simplest form—encouraging companies to engage with the newest tools faster than their counterparts. Wisnieff noted that IBM now offers cloud-based quantum computing, allowing research teams from around the world to upload computational tasks solved online by IBM’s quantum computers.
But to leverage these possibilities, industry stakeholders, academics, and policymakers alike must move forward collaboratively. John Kelly, director of analytics at QxBranch, said it is extremely important to have an ecosystem that includes machine developers, data scientists, quantum computing experts, and regulators all working collaboratively, to ensure ideas are translatable and actionable in every space. 1QBit is attempting just that by bringing quantum computing to a higher level and making it accessible to programmers in traditional, existing, programming languages they can readily understand.
Tim Polk, assistant director of cybersecurity at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, emphasized the role that government must play in the quantum space. Having already recognized the significant economic, societal, and security benefits it can present, the U.S. government has been funding quantum research for over 20 years. The National Strategic Computing Initiative is continuously looking for new computing paradigms and strives to work with other agencies to determine the broad range of advancements quantum offers. He also noted that leveraging quantum computing will also be important to revealing physical properties at the atomic level that can perpetuate the current CMOS (i.e., silicon-based) computing architecture.
According to Kelly, quantum computing is an “enabler and accelerator” of future capabilities in many different areas. We are far off from quantum computing impacting every industry and person in the economy. However, this technology is critical to the future of society, security, and the economy. Future success requires robust private-public partnerships and strong investments in the development of these ecosystems, beginning now.