A quantum sputnik moment

By Sandra Helsel posted 19 May 2022

(JustSecurity.org) The United States has the opportunity to achieve a new Sputnik moment writes Nima Leclerc ( @LeclercNima), PhD candidate and 2021 Perry World House policy graduate associate at the University of Pennsylvania. IQT-News summarizes the extensive discussion below; the entire article is well-worth the time to read.

Leclerc explains, When people think about high-tech competition with China, they usually think about space. But while moon landings and Mars missions capture the competitive imagination, there is an even bigger, but much less appreciated, tech race underway: quantum computing. This has major national security implications.

The potential costs to security and economic competitiveness of remaining on the quantum technology sidelines far exceed the investments that the United States needs to make to reach its goal. The United States must urgently make quantum technology innovation a national priority and leverage the expansive resources and talent pool that it already has at its disposal.

China’s strategy to quantum innovation focuses on public-private partnership and centering the technology as a national priority. Its “Made in China 2025” initiative has increased funding for enterprises like Alibaba and Origin Quantum in this domain and has subsidized billions of dollars of annual investments, including the development of a $1 billion quantum center in Hefei.
China’s commitment to investing in this technology is also reflected in its intellectual property laws. In 2021, a report showed that China filed a total of 3,000 patents in quantum technology, while the United States sits at 1,500, putting it at a competitive disadvantage.
The United States has the opportunity to become a global leader in quantum computing, but it will take significant work to get there. Drawing parallels to the Soviet-U.S. space race, the United States needs to ramp up private-public partnerships, focus on training a quantum workforce, and center its efforts on making this a national priority to be competitive with major players like China.
The National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI) approved by Congress in 2018 was created to bolster U.S. competitiveness in quantum science and technology. A key thrust of this act was to promote a lively ecosystem and the creation of quantum centers at national labs. While this does create the synergy needed to kickstart important discussions on the priorities of the technology, it lacks the significant, sustained investments needed to translate scientific discoveries into usable quantum technologies.
Just as the Chinese government works directly on quantum centered projects with companies like Huawei and academic labs, the United States needs to use its successes in government-funded corporate projects in the space industry as a model for the quantum domain. This will first require expanding the budget of the NQI from the current $800 million to the billions of dollars currently being invested by China.
Next, the U.S. government needs to leverage its existing partnerships with industry through the QED-c to decide on specific allocations for contracted projects.
A key roadblock that the United States faces in becoming the global leader in quantum tech is its talent shortage. Most quantum scientists and engineers in industry in the United States have PhDs with extensive training in narrow research areas such as condensed matter physics and quantum cryptography. China is already outpacing the United States in these areas at all levels of education. At the K-12 level, companies like Origin Quantum are spearheading efforts to teach the fundamentals of quantum engineering in primary schools. At the university level, China has introduced Quantum Information Science as a major for college students and expanded quantum graduate training.
At the professional level, China has introduced an Industry-Education Integration Promotion Association to equip experts in non-quantum fields with the minimum background to make a career pivot.
As a first step, companies can train ‘quantum aware’ scientists and engineers from classical disciplines to join the quantum workforce.

Sandra K. Helsel, Ph.D. has been researching and reporting on frontier technologies since 1990.  She has her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

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