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Podcast: Securing US Leadership in Quantum Computing, With Edward Parker

Podcast: Securing US Leadership in Quantum Computing, With Edward Parker

Quantum technologies, especially quantum computing, hold great promise in revolutionizing everyday systems from health care to artificial intelligence, national security, and beyond. Rob and Jackie sat down with Edward Parker, a physical scientist at the RAND Corporation, to discuss the implications of quantum computing and how the United States can remain the global leader in this technology.




Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I'm Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We're a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I'm Jackie Whisman. I head development at ITIF, which I'm proud to say is the world's top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today, we're going to talk about quantum computing, a technology that enables new, extremely powerful computing architectures.

Jackie Whisman: Our guest is Edward Parker. He's a physical scientist at the RAND Corporation. He's broadly interested in the societal impact of disruptive technologies and his current research focuses on emerging quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. Welcome Edward. Thanks for being here.

Edward Parker:Very happy to be here.

Jackie Whisman: Maybe we should start by defining quantum for the lay person, if you don't mind doing that.

Rob Atkinson: Which is everybody pretty much except-

Jackie Whisman: Me.

Rob Atkinson: Me.

Jackie Whisman: Mostly me.

Rob Atkinson: Me, everybody.

Edward Parker:Sure. Quantum technology, the direct definition that I would give is, it is any technology which takes advantage of the strange laws of physics known as quantum mechanics. Which essentially describe what happens at microscopic scales, the atom, the size of atoms and below. Where the behavior is pretty unusual. There are unusual behaviors that you may have heard of from various contexts, such as things like particles like electrons can in some sense appear in multiple positions at once, but that's not a terribly useful definition because it's a little abstract and unclear what it really means from a practical perspective. I like to frame it as two pieces, to what quantum technology really is. One thing to hammer home is that it all involves processing information. It is unique ways of gathering, storing and processing information to some degree or another, which is really fundamentally different from any existing technology.

To delve into quantum computers specifically, roughly speaking, every computer in history essentially has operated on the same basic paradigm, the same operational program and all the technical improvement has been scale and speed. So there have been more and more transistors packed onto every chip. They've operated much, much faster than before, but at a very high level, the computers we have today operate the same way as ENIAC and the vacuum tube computers from the 1940s, just vastly faster. Quantum computers are not like that. They're really fundamentally different. They are not sped up versions of our existing computers. To get a little bit technical, they cannot be described as touring machines, which is how almost all computers are described at a very abstract, theoretical level. And because of that, there are certain calculations that they can perform hugely faster than any existing computer.

Even in principle, exponentially faster. They're not general purpose supercomputers. There are certain calculations that they would not be particularly good at, but there are a few specialized ones where they can just be hugely faster than existing computers. I think that's the core takeaway. And the other piece of that, which I'd emphasize is because they really operate on different types of physics, they have very unusual required operating conditions. For example, a lot of these computers have to be at extremely cold temperatures, they need to be in some cases, a thousandths of a degree of absolute zero is how cold they need to be kept in order to operate.

They need to be extremely carefully shielded from the environment, from vibrations and air molecules and stray radio waves. Any one of those can destroy such a computer. So they're extremely delicate. I think those are the two things to keep in mind. One is for certain things that are qualitatively faster than any existing computers, but two is, they're just really different at the physical level. And they operate in very different ways and have very unique operating requirements, which makes them extremely challenging to actually build in the real world.

Jackie Whisman: And why is this technology so important, especially now?

Edward Parker:Because there are two different ways to answer that question. One, is there a few specific applications which have been proposed and studied theoretically, which we are to varying degrees of confident, we could say eventually a quantum computer will be able to perform these specific applications. I'm happy to go into more depth, but at the sort of high level, some of the types of applications are scientific modeling and simulation, for example, improved drug discovery or the design of new materials with important physical properties. Another very well-known example is code breaking. Quantum computers eventually may be able to break almost all of the codes that are used to protect internet traffic today, which has clear applications for both economic and national security, which I'm happy to go into. Another perspective on why quantum computers are important is a little more abstract, which is just, there're a fundamentally different type of computer, which theoretically have different capabilities.

And a sort of broad lesson from the history of computing is as we develop new computing capabilities, they find ways of being used. And generally they've been extremely disruptive and led to huge amounts of economic value, even things that didn't have immediate applications like the internet in fairly short order tended to be transformative. From that sort of high level, historical precedent, we have reason to believe any kind of qualitatively new computer will probably have drastic impact on our economy and our way of living even if the exact versions of that are not clear right now.

Rob Atkinson: That's really interesting, Edward. ITIF wrote a report on current uses of quantum. There's a view that quantum is way in the future. Actually are uses of quantum today. There are companies that have quantum and they're using it and all, but my question is when you read about quantum, it's like, okay, we've now gotten to, I don't know, 50 qubits or I don't know whatever those numbers are. They're not great. I mean, they're better than where they are and it's really hard. And yet we seem to be making progress.

And I guess my question is, and maybe nobody knows this is this just... You can see one of two scenarios where the theoretical possibilities arc are captured or where it's just too hard. The physics are just too hard. You can't get it cold enough. You can't get it smooth enough, whatever it might be, any sense of... Yeah, we obviously don't know, but I mean, do you think that it's possible we could have a quantum winter where we just kind of don't make a lot of progress or is sort of like how Morris Law was?

Edward Parker:That's absolutely the 64 million question or more likely much more than $64 million. No one knows exactly how much value the answer to that question is worth yet. As you said, there's absolutely very impressive progress being made. The technical achievements are undeniable by a variety of companies. And we're far ahead of where we were just a few years ago. The example people point to is at the end of 2019, Google announced a milestone, which at the time they referred to as quantum supremacy, that language has sort of changed a bit. But for the first time, they were able to clearly demonstrate that their quantum computer was capable of solving a math problem, so difficult that the world's fastest supercomputer was unable to solve it. There are a few little caveats there, but at a high level, that is a true claim. Essentially is true, with perhaps a few caveats about exactly how much the speed up was.

Clearly computers can do things as you say, the question is, are those things useful? And when will they become useful? And the answer to that, I think is there are two generations of quantum computers. There're sort of first generation quantum computers, which are all the ones that exist today. And then there's a second generation, which does not yet exist. To get a little bit jargony, the first generation now is called NISQC or noisy intermediate scale quantum computers. Further down the line there will eventually be error corrected or fault tolerant, quantum computers. I'm happy to go into a little more detail what that means, but what really matters for the purpose here is there may or may not be applications for the first generation quantum computer where we are now. I would be surprised if there are no applications at all, but frankly, I would also be surprised if the first generation computer applications are hugely transformative, just because there are the qubits we have now are still very noisy.

As an example, Google's quantum computer could only operate for 50 microseconds before essentially failing. Offense, essentially the computation had to abort and they had to start over. Just due to noise and errors that accumulate rapidly in the qubits. There is a theoretical solution to that. And I think if we can achieve this fault tolerant quantum computer, that's when you really start to see transformative value. Even if we can't say exactly what those applications will be, I think it's virtually impossible that there won't be any at that point.

However, that is still many years away. Google has announced a timeline for achieving fault tolerance by around 2030. So we're still talking about a decade time scale. In the intermediate decade before we have fault tolerance, I think it's an open question. I think there will be some applications. I think it's entirely possible that frankly, they are not as dramatic as what is currently being sort of proclaimed in the popular media and by companies. I think a quantum winter is certainly not impossible.

Jackie Whisman: You've written and thought a lot about the metrics for assessing nations when it comes to quantum industrial bases. And I'd like, just to ask where you think the U.S and China are in the race for quantum leadership?

Edward Parker:Sure. My colleagues and I at RAND recently put out a publicly available report on our website, which I'll just briefly plug.

Jackie Whisman: And we will link it in our show notes.

Edward Parker:It is a long and detailed assessment, 140 pages or so, 110 pages. Maybe I'll briefly summarize it for those who don't want the full 110 page version here on the podcast. The answer is it's a complex picture. We tried to do a fairly holistic assessment that looked at a variety of different aspects, such as public scientific publishing, the extent of government support in both nations, the extent and nature of private sector industry, and finally demonstrated technical achievement in specific key sub technologies.

And while our answer is complicated, I think there is not a clear leader across the board. I think, I feel comfortable saying that overall, the United States is still the leader, the global leader in quantum technology. I think that is also true specifically for quantum computing. Although there, the picture is perhaps a bit nuanced in that there are many different technical approaches for achieving quantum computing.

There are basically different types of qubits, which is a sort of fundamental building block of a quantum computer that operate by totally different principles and are built in completely different ways. And there are several different approaches, all being pursued in parallel. And most of those approaches, the United States appears to be leading in demonstrated technical capability. There are a few approaches such as superconducting transmon qubits, which is one of the most mature approaches where the Chinese have recently announced a quantum computer, which is at rough parody, I would say technically with the prototypes announced by leading U.S companies such as Google and IBM.

Depending on kind of how you look at it, you could make a case that the U.S is clearly in the lead technically because we are sort of mature in a broader variety of techniques and approaches, or you could make the case that it's actually somewhat closer to a tie in that one of those approaches were sort of at rough parody and that is perhaps the most mature approach.

Not an easy answer there. Another thing I'll say is so far, this conversation has been focusing specifically on quantum computing, but that's actually not the only quantum technology under development. There are broadly speaking, three categories of quantum technology, quantum computing, quantum communications, and quantum sensing. I'm happy to go into what those are in more detail.

And while I think the U.S, I would say is in the lead in quantum computing in terms of demonstrated technical capability, China has actually been placing a higher degree of effort into quantum communications relative to the United States. And I would say that in quantum communications, China has actually deployed a technology at a higher degree than the U.S has. Again, the picture is somewhat complicated.

Rob Atkinson: One of the interesting things, and we've wrote something about this recently, just how much U.S technology companies, major companies like IBM and Microsoft and Google, Facebook, Amazon spend on R&D. The five major companies spend as much on R&D as one third of the overall Chinese R&D government and company combined. They spend more than all the company, Japanese R&D. How's that dynamic playing out in China? I get the sense in China that there's a bigger government to business R&D ratio in quantum that the government's spending more money on quantum research and development than the U.S government is, is that accurate? And how does that play out in China?

Edward Parker:It's difficult too, we were able to give some insight on financial numbers for startup companies through announced levels of venture capital that were raised. We were not able to gain a lot of visibility into how much money the large tech companies were spending on their quantum programs specifically because they didn't report that. In terms of financial numbers, we were more or less restricted to only startups, which of course, leaves out a huge part of the ecosystem. Because we couldn't really say much about Google, IBM, Honeywell, Amazon, Microsoft, et cetera, it's financial numbers. But we were able to get some numbers from the startups and publicly announced venture capital funding. And as you said, there was a pretty stark difference. The total amount of announced venture capital funding for private quantum technology activity in China was only 3% of the U.S total. The U.S total, I believe was 1.26 billion that we were able to tally up across several dozen companies.

And in China it was 40 million or so. We're talking orders of magnitude difference. Those numbers may not be entirely accurate, but we do think it is true that purely private activity is much larger in the U.S than in China. We found that to a much greater degree than the U.S and China, most of the effort was focused in government funded labs. There was one particular laboratory actually where the Chinese government appears to be concentrating its quantum specific technology R&D a laboratory in the city of [inaudible 00:16:17], and we really found that many of the most impressive technical achievements were all coming out of this lab. We weren't able to get very reliable numbers on how much the government is spending on this lab. We sort of found ranges everywhere. Well, total government spending in China, we found reported numbers anywhere from I think, 84 million on the low end to three billion a year on the high end.

We were just a huge range of reports. We weren't really able to get visibility as to where in that range is the truth. We weren't able to get a solid answer as to whether the Chinese government is spending more or less money than the U.S government, but we do feel confident in saying government spending in quantum and China dwarfs that of the private sector. Which is not the case in the U.S. In the U.S it's much closer to parody, perhaps even more money perhaps being spent in the private end. A very, very different weight of effort between the government and the private sector between the U.S and China.

Jackie Whisman: What do you think the U.S government should be doing to promote U.S leadership here?

Edward Parker:Most of the federal government's policy and quantum technology was sort of established by a bill called the National Quantum Initiative, which was passed by Congress and signed into law at the end of 2018. And they'd taken quite a few steps already, that included greatly increasing funding, establishing several centers of excellence operated by both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy for various quantum sub technologies establishing something called the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, which we can discuss a little bit if you want. And I think those are all very positive steps and it also established the National Quantum Coordinating Office within the White House Office of Science and Technology. There's already been a lot of movement. This is clearly a priority of the federal government and funding as well as activities is increasing continuously. I think those are all very positive steps are our recommendations in the report basically fell into two categories.

One was, it's important to continue funding a broad variety of scientific approaches at the level of basic science of publicly reported science and academia. On the one hand, the most impressive technical achievements are currently in some cases, in many cases, not entirely being reported by private companies. In a sense, innovation is now being led by the private sector in the United States. And it's easy to say from that fact, the technology is now mature enough that government can sort of step back and let private sector take it from here. It's now sort of reached the deployment stage. And I think that would be not the right conclusion to draw because while it's true, that private industry is equally active or perhaps even more active now than the federal government in funding this R&D, there's still huge unknowns as to what the demand signal will be and what the timelines will be for actual, commercial viability.

I think there's still a very important role in basic federal funding for basic open scientific R&D. And moreover, there are so many different technical approaches that are all being pursued in parallel, and it's not really clear which one of them will win so to speak. But I think it's too early to pick a small number of technical winners and go all in on those. We want to keep a diversified range of technology approaches, and I think the federal government is in a strong position to ensure that that is done as a large sort of central player in the ecosystem.

Rob Atkinson: Edward, I want to follow up on that, but I have to also give a plug to the Senate. You seek a bill, which we more are big supporters of more or less, is I think it's better in some ways or many ways than the house bill, but any case, one of the things that Senator Schumer and Senator Young did there was the NSF director focused on 10 core technologies. And one of those is quantum. So if that bill is passed and funded, there would be a significantly more NSF funding here to go along with what you're talking about.

But my question is, it seems to me, we're facing a challenge or a conundrum or conflict on the one hand, we need to do more basic research. We don't know exactly all the solutions, all the technologies, but at the same time we want to limit China from getting ahead of us. And to the extent they just read our open source journals, go to the conferences, they learn that, is there any way to square that circle at all? Or are we just kind of have to bite the bullet and say, "All right, we're going to do basic research and they're going to capitalize on it. And hopefully we'll capitalize more."

Edward Parker:There's complimentary efforts being pursued now, between sort of academia and the more open model and the private sector, which while many of these companies do publish fairly openly, technical benchmarks for their products, they're presumably not revealing everything. There are probably some things that are trade secrets and valuable intellectual property, which I think is appropriate. And I think, you'll have both of those approaches being pursued and the technology is still earliest age enough that I think there is really a strong case to be made for keeping things open and leveraging the positive externalities that come from sharing this information. Especially now, since there isn't a clear commercial use case yet, I think naturally as we develop into things that are ready closer to final profitability, there will be questions emerging around export controls and intellectual property protection, which are certainly being considered now.

The White House Office of Science and Technology policy, for example, recently put out a very thoughtful public document on the role of international talent in quantum information science, which I thought did a very good job of balancing the imperatives of keeping an open ecosystem and the free flow of scientific knowledge with the risk of intellectual property loss and perhaps in some cases legal and other cases illegal. Those questions are being considered now. I would caution against having too much of a zero sum mentality and an us versus them mentality in that a lot of this still is basic science and not every achievement by one country comes at the loss of another country.

The most important thing to be thinking about is ensuring that we have a base and there are a variety of ways of going about that. While of course being aware of the risks and certainly keeping a close eye on other countries activities. This is still largely an academic enterprise. And while that will probably be changing more and more in the future, there is still a lot of open scientific research that remains to be done. I think for the near term, but I hope that answered your question. It may not have.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. Yeah, no, very much so. Although I think always in all of these cases, it's oftentimes the actual specific cases that are for example, would we want to have a Chinese academic researcher at one of the best quantum centers, if we know that they're task ordered by the government to take an intellectual property? The answer I would think is no, obviously that doesn't mean that every Chinese researcher is in that category. I think it probably in my view way of thinking would be, that there are going to be specific cases where we might want to be careful, but overall we're more in the open stage rather than the competitive stage right now, I think is what you're saying as well.

Edward Parker:Yeah. I think a key thing to emphasize is, the different sub components of the federal government should be coordinating with each other. There should be information sharing and coordinated approaches toward technology protection, which makes sure that every agency and department is on the same page, whereas regarding how to strike that balance. And a key part of that is conducted by the National Quantum Coordinating Office established by the National Quantum Initiative in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. So that's a very important role, which is being conducted by that office, which I think is a very valuable role.

Rob Atkinson: Edward, this has been great, really, really interesting. I know for a lot of people who kind of have a general sense that they've heard the term quantum, hopefully this will help folks figure out a little bit more about what it is and why it's important. Thank you so much for joining us.

Edward Parker:Very happy to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Jackie Whisman: And that's it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @ITIFDC.

Rob Atkinson: We have more episodes and great guests lined up. New episodes will drop every other Monday, so continue to tune in.

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