Chrysostomos Loizos Nikias, President of the University of Southern California has called it. There’s a new space race and it’s for quantum technology. The trouble, he says in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; America’s losing.
To whom? To China. As the Chinese government invests upwards of (US) $10 billion in a new National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, The US has been lagging behind with total government funding for quantum science at $300 million in 2016.
Countries around the world including Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands have also invested heavily in academia and business to make breakthroughs in quantum computing, cryptography, sensors, information science and more. The investments the US made across academia and government in 1990’s such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative turned the country into a world leader in quantum science. Yet that comparative advantage, a foundation to build upon, is being lost.
During Congressional testimony last year on American leadership in quantum technology a cross section of the country’s brightest scientific minds came together to announce that the science was reaching an inflection point. As Dr. Jim Kurose of the National Science Foundation testified, the US must “continue to invest in long-term, fundamental, and game-changing research –and education – if we are to maintain US leadership in an emerging quantum world”. Academia and business came together to highlight the need for funding to train a new generation of computer scientists, engineers and physicists to advance into a new phase of the quantum revolution.
This same question applies to Australia. With substantial investment in the Quantum race and world class talent such as Australian of the year Michelle Simmons, are we doing enough to raise a new generation of talent and build a new quantum sector? The long lead times in training experts and providing the tools necessary requires forward strategic planning and investment to bridge the science to commerce gap and forge the critical partnerships that create a functioning quantum industry.
As Nikias points out the space race analogy is dwarfed by the new era of strategic competition where the quest for technological superiority reigns supreme. Technologies of the Cold War period are being surpassed by a broader set of innovations. Designated the 4th industrial revolution by the World Economic Forum, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, synthetic biology and quantum technology are among the new forces that will reshape our world and change global power relations. This a race that the US cannot afford to lose.
This is because this isn’t a race to the moon, it is a race to understand the sub atomic origins of life itself. Quantum technologies focus on the control and manipulation of sub-atomic particles that defy conventional physics. In communications, materials science and medicine, quantum technologies are displaying enormous potential at delivering qualitative leaps in our understanding how information, energy and matter work.
This also has national security implications. The ability for quantum computation to defeat the cryptographic safeguards designed to withstand attack from regular computers is serious. As the internet of things and countries critical infrastructure become dependent on strong cybersecurity, understanding quantum information science will become a vital asset. The same holds true for commerce where securing info data against hacking and espionage has become a new normal.
At the end of his proclamation, Nikias calls for a US national quantum strategy. This is a crucial step to funding a push in quantum technologies and of organising a cohesive framework for business, institutions and policymakers to unite under. It will take time for the notoriously complex science behind quantum to be translated into optimal policy settings and harnessed effectively by business. By creating goals and linkages between communities that process can begin to form the bedrock of a new industry. This foundation matters because it gives entrepreneurs, investors and aspiring students the knowledge that there is a long-term quantum future they can be part of. A national strategy will require foresight and commitment from a Trump Whitehouse big on words and short on policy. However, it is essential that the administration take the race seriously as the lasting impacts of the quantum race will be felt for decades.
Nikias’ call mirrors efforts of tech leaders in other fields with the first Whitehouse Summit on Artificial Intelligence occurring last week. Tech leaders from the Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft echoed calls for greater investment in basic research and training as they too seek to capitalise on the early lead they have established as they face competition from China and Europe. It is important to note that funding for one technology or the other will not be enough for the US to maintain global power relative to its competitors. It will be states that can take advantage of the inter-disciplinary synergies between these fundamental technologies that will succeed.