(Brookings.edu) Two recent breakthroughs in quantum computing have generated significant excitement in the field. By using quantum computers to solve problems that classical computers could not, researchers in the United States and China have separately ushered in the era of “quantum advantage.” Yet as momentous as the demonstration of quantum advantage may be, it is the availability of more capable quantum machines that will ultimately have greater impact. Access to these machines will foster a cohort of “quantum natives” capable of solving real-world problems with quantum computers.
Quantum computers are highly specialized machines currently not suited for life outside research laboratories, so public access to these machines currently occurs via the cloud—online access over existing internet infrastructure. The availability of early quantum computing resources will not need to be mediated by purchase of specialized equipment, creating a real opportunity for broad-based access to rather exotic technology.
Clearly, access to cloud-based quantum computing will require digital access considered ubiquitous in modern society. But virtual schooling, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, has laid bare socioeconomic divides in technology and internet resources—resources not nearly as universal as often imagined. Quantum computing serves as one more reminder that universal digital infrastructure is absolutely vital for the education of today, the workforce of tomorrow, and participation in the technology development of the future.
Current public access to certain quantum computing resources puts us in a strong initial position. The classical computing industry has long maintained a beneficent relationship with higher education, contributing resources that range from student fellowships to in-kind hardware grants to free software licenses. Commercial players in quantum computing must ensure similar avenues for access for both educational and research purposes. The National Q-12 Education Partnership, a public-private effort headed by the National Science Foundation and the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, commits to bringing quantum education to precollege students. These sorts of initiatives will bring together industry, academia, and government to expand the quantum ecosystem, within which vibrant cycles of research and development will drive progress in quantum computing.
NOTE: This article by Joan A. Hoffmann, a principal physicist within the Research and Exploratory Development Department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to rigorous, independent, in-depth public policy research.