Penney urges changes if U.S. is to hold quantum advantage over China
The U.S. government must urgently move beyond research and development of quantum technologies and become more focused on demonstrating “real-world capability” in quantum if the nation expects to hold quantum advantage over China, according to Heather Penney, a renowned former Air Force pilot who is now senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Penney spoke this week during the Mitchell Institute webinar “Quantum Advantage: Why It’s Important and Essential Next Steps,” during which she also was joined by Michael Hayduk, Deputy Director at Air Force Research Lab Information Directorate, and Laura Thomas, vice president of strategy at Infleqtion. While Hayduk and Thomas often have spoken on the topic of the government taking a strong position in advancing quantum, it was Penney who this time spoke most extensively about what needs to change going forward.
Penney noted that existing methods for understanding which countries are further ahead in quantum than others are becoming outdated.
“When evaluating which nation wields a quantum advantage, most researchers and consultants use patent counts, academic papers published and academic papers referenced to determine who is ahead,” Penney said. “Using these metrics the United States is generally ahead in quantum computing and sensing, while China has an edge in quantum communication. But I would argue the real proof of advantage is who is fielding real world capability and who has the industrial base to deliver it, and that also means moving past research and development. This is the risk: China is demonstrating their quantum capabilities in the real world, and that is where the U.S. needs to move if we are to secure a meaningful advantage.”
Ultimately, the DoD must do more buying of quantum technology to support the sector. As one of Penney’s slides during the webinar noted, “A quantum-based acquisition program of record is urgently needed to: 1. Transition quantum technologies beyond “lab in the box” 2. Facilitize for scaled production (supply chain, hardware, plant).”
Penney’s observations were drawn from a report she authored which provides a number of recommendations for U.S. policymakers, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and other parts of the government to promote and accelerate the usage of technologies such as quantum clocks, quantum sensing and navigation in support of the nation’s “warfighters.”
Among key recommendations, Penney believes the DoD should align with and increase its support of a “nascent” but “fragile” quantum industry by “investing in the supply chain of cross-industry components and hardware, and exploring public-private partnerships to build up production facilities.”
She noted that while all “defense-prime” suppliers are participating in quantum research activities and can leverage their existing understanding of integration, warfighter needs, and the technology acquisition, “there’s no programmatic pull or profit goal to incentivize them to scale their quantum investments.”
On the other hand, large tech and IT companies can envision the rewards for driving quantum technology toward maturity and continue to invest in it, “so DoD should leverage that as much as possible” by working with these firms, she said.
Penney added that the DoD needs to do more to support the quantum sector’s smallest start-ups, those that “represent the bleeding edge of quantum technologies” but have investment and expense requirements that far outstrip what traditional DoD R&D funding programs provide.
“R&D dollars are too small to scale these companies,” Penney said. “As one executive said, ‘R&D is starvation wages, we can’t survive on it and we won’t be able to keep our venture capital rounds going forever.”
Ultimately, the DoD must do more buying of quantum technology to support the sector and move ahead of China. As one of Penney’s slides during the webinar noted, “A quantum-based acquisition program of record is urgently needed to: 1. Transition quantum technologies beyond “lab in the box” 2. Facilitize for scaled production (supply chain, hardware, plant).”
Dan O’Shea has covered telecommunications and related topics including semiconductors, sensors, retail systems, digital payments and quantum computing/technology for over 25 years.