Congress Crafts Legislation to Retain U.S. Edge in Quantum

The House Science Committee unveils an ambitious plan for a bill to counter China’s landmark $10 billion investment in quantum research.

Attendees walk past an electronic display showing recent cyberattacks in China at the China Internet Security Conference in Beijing on Sept. 12, 2017.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
Feb. 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

It can be tough to convince Capitol Hill to pony up federal funds for the research and development of emerging technologies. But when a top geopolitical rival like China starts throwing billions of dollars into a bizarre new computing method with the potential to shred America’s defense posture and upend the global economy, expect lawmakers to sit up and take notice.

That dynamic appears to be at play in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s aggressive new push to draft legislation that would create a National Quantum Initiative—a plan to bring industry, government, and academia together to challenge the massive quantum-computing projects now in progress in China and Europe.

An aide from the committee confirmed to National Journal on Wednesday that work on such legislation is well under way. Committee staff from both parties met Wednesday morning with industry and academic stakeholders to solicit input on draft legislation expected to be circulated by the end of March. A markup of the bill should take place by late spring.

The legislation is likely to include hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for the advancement of quantum-computing technology, a fast-developing research area that exploits the mystifying ability of subatomic particles to exist in two places simultaneously.

Quantum computing will allow those with the resources—for the foreseeable future, that means governments and major corporations—to create machines capable of executing obscene amounts of calculations at once. Lifelike simulations and encryption that would have been impossible to crack with a classical computer could conceivably be child’s play for a well-developed quantum computer.

The new tech, which most experts believe will begin having a practical impact in the next six to 10 years, opens the door for a cascade of groundbreaking advances in energy and medicine. But it also puts the U.S. intelligence community’s system of encrypted communication at risk, and could upend vast swathes of America’s defense and cybersecurity frameworks.

Members of the committee were first warned in October that China’s newly announced $10 billion investment in a quantum-computing center dwarfed anything being pursued by the United States government. Industry representatives and quantum scientists fretted over the energy and national security implications of falling behind China, and urged the lawmakers to funnel federal money into an initiative that would allow the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge.

The legislation is being spearheaded by Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock, both of whom were reportedly spurred into action by October’s hearing. Neither, however, are under any illusion that they can match China’s investment.

“We’re never going to meet China dollar-for-dollar,” said the House aide, alluding to the autocratic state’s ability to allocate funds without political debate.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. investment will be peanuts. The aide pointed to a document from the National Photonics Initiative recommending a $750 million investment over five years, suggesting that number could be a reasonable benchmark. Others have suggested anywhere from $500 million to $2 billion over a five-to-10-year time frame.

“What is needed and what is realistic politically are two different things, and that’s for us to navigate,” the aide said, explaining that lawmakers and staff will first need to determine how to best coordinate disparate industry, academic, and agency elements into a unified team before settling on the right level of funding.

“There’s no doubt this is an expensive effort,” the aide said.

The House’s quantum-computing push is likely to receive a boost from the White House, which has taken an interest in all things quantum. In December, the Trump administration hired Jacob Taylor, a quantum researcher on detail from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to be the first assistant director for quantum information science at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In an interview with National Journal on Wednesday, Taylor said his hire is indicative of a new effort under way in Washington to maintain America’s competitive advantage in quantum. “There have been people working in the past at OSTP on this, but not on this level,” he said.

Taylor said he’s working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to craft quantum legislation, but stressed the importance of maintaining a diversity of viewpoints on the still-emerging technology.

He also expressed some skepticism in the efficacy of China’s massive new investment, noting that the country lacks the robust quantum-research foundation that the United States has built up over the past two decades.

“I expect that the Chinese effort is expensive relative to what they expect to get from it,” Taylor said, “because they have a large infrastructure trouble that they have to work against.”

It’s not clear whether Capitol Hill will have the bandwidth to pass a National Quantum Initiative before the next Congress. Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the Senate panel has no current plans to introduce or consider quantum legislation.

But industry is still excited by the opportunity to partner with the federal government on quantum.

Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, was one of several industry participants at Wednesday morning’s roundtable. “I truly believe, based on what I heard today, that there’s a desire for this to happen at the national level,” he said.

Clarke said the key to a successful National Quantum Initiative won’t just be the amount of investment, but how those dollars are distributed.

“If what you do with that money is you give everybody a little, then nothing will happen,” he said. “I think it’s very important that there’s more of a centralized ownership of this, and that there are larger programs working toward common goals rather than just giving everybody a little slice of the pie.”

It’s finding that balance between competition and collaboration—where researchers from opposing institutions are encouraged to compete while still operating within a unified framework—that could be the most complicated aspect of crafting a National Quantum Initiative.

“Making sure you’re not showing bias, making sure you’re collaborating, and making sure you’ve not giving everyone a tiny slice so that nothing gets done—that’s going to be the challenge of something like this,” Clarke said.

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