Congress Set to Put “Real Money” Down for Quantum Research

Alarmed by Chinese advances, lawmakers are poised to shell out at least half a billion dollars for a new federal quantum initiative.

Sen. John Thune
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
Aug. 1, 2018, 8 p.m.

A tight federal budget, fast-shrinking floor time, and an upcoming election appear unlikely to derail Capitol Hill’s speedy passage of America’s first-ever quantum initiative. And as with so many other technology issues now percolating in Washington, China is once again the catalyst for dramatic action.

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee approved an ambitious round of federal funding intended to galvanize quantum-computing research in the United States. The bill authorizes the appropriation of between $350 million and $550 million in new funds over the next five years—though those numbers are likely to increase by as much as twofold in the coming weeks.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee already passed companion legislation in late June. And one House aide told National Journal the bill is slated to hit the House floor soon after recess.

“All signs are go; we’ve gotten positive feedback from leadership,” the aide said. “It’s just a matter of which day we get to be on the floor in September.”

It hasn’t been easy for lawmakers or their staffs to wrap their heads around the strange science of quantum, which relies on the baffling ability of subatomic particles to exist in two places simultaneously. Scientists are discovering how to harness this eerie property to create an entirely new class of computers capable of processing data at rates exponentially faster than even the most state-of-the-art classical machines. Experts say these quantum computers will fundamentally reshape entire fields, with the most immediate impact likely to be felt in chemistry and computer optimization.

But the United States isn’t the only country taking an interest in these powerful new machines. And in fact, America is one of the last major powers without a national initiative meant to kick-start the emerging technology.

In 2016, the European Union announced the creation of a $1 billion quantum initiative, an investment larger than those recently made by the United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia. Those projects are all dwarfed by China’s October announcement of a new $10 billion quantum-computing facility, an investment that comes on top of recent Chinese advances in quantum-satellite and -communications technology.

China’s interest in quantum computing is already raising red flags when it comes to national security.

Part of the theoretical advantage of quantum computers is their ability to burn through complicated math problems that would take their classical counterparts thousands of years to solve. Those equations now protect the U.S. government’s most sensitive communications from electronic eavesdroppers. If China were to develop an advanced quantum computer capable of cracking those encryption algorithms before the U.S. learns how to stop them, the results could be catastrophic—particularly because communications collected and stored before the advent of quantum technology could still be read years later.

“Within the next five, 10, 15, 20 years, there’s a high probability that quantum computing will be practical for at least advanced nation-states,” said Steve Grobman, the chief technology officer for cybersecurity firm McAfee. “That implies that the time to act is really now, because the data that is being transmitted now clearly has to be protected at least for the next few decades.”

Lawmakers are candid about the Chinese impetus for the new quantum spending. When asked what prompted the influx of new federal funds, Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune said Capitol Hill is simply interested in “keeping up."

“China’s way ahead on this,” Thune said, “and this is one of those frontiers of technology.”

Both the House and Senate bills direct the White House to coordinate a 10-year quantum initiative between federal agencies, industry, and academia. But until Wednesday, neither bill allocated new money to the relevant agencies, instead directing them to draw from existing funds. Without new appropriations, some experts worried that the quantum bill would be little more than window dressing.

“I’m confident that they’ll pass legislation,” Stephen Ezell, a quantum expert at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said on Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that they’ll pass legislation that includes real money. And there’s a difference between the two.”

But the Senate did move to appropriate between $350 million and $550 million in new funding on Wednesday, with the discrepancy depending on how many quantum-research and -education centers are created through the National Science Foundation. And while the House bill continues to draw from existing agency coffers, the House aide said lawmakers are likely to support allocating new funds once the bill goes to conference.

Industry is excited at the prospect of working with federal agencies newly flush with quantum cash. Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel, said he’s been gratified by the bipartisan support for the legislation and surprised at how fast things are moving. He said he and his colleagues have already spoken with the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology about pursuing new projects in the wake of the bill’s passage.

“Both bills seem to be setting up things correctly, and Intel seems to be gaining traction on engagement,” Clarke said. “We haven’t seen any roadblocks yet.”

While the Senate bill now allocates around $550 million for quantum, the new initiative may end up costing substantially more.

The House bill includes an extra $625 million for the Energy Department, which runs the series of National Laboratories dotting the United States. Jurisdictional wrangling between committees meant that provision wasn’t included in the Senate Commerce bill. But Nicole Daigle, a spokeswoman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said committee lawmakers are “very interested” in the bill and are in the midst of reviewing it and talking with stakeholders.

“I believe that the energy section will be in the final bill,” the House aide told National Journal. And if the House’s proposed $625 million allocation to the Energy Department remains relatively unchanged, that would likely push the quantum initiative's final price tag over $1 billion.

That’s still just a fraction of China’s recent spending on quantum-computing projects. But Clarke says any federal effort to shore up America’s place in the burgeoning quantum race will make a huge difference.

“We’re at mile one of a marathon, and we’re still in the lead pack,” Clarke said. “And certainly at the national level, it’s early. But if you were to wait five or 10 years, then you would find, perhaps, that it’s way too late.”

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