America’s Lead in Quantum Computing Is ‘Under Siege’

By Mohana Ravindranath

December 7, 2016

The United States needs to invest more in quantum computing, a White House assistant director said Tuesday.

While the federal government has been funding quantum research for decades—quantum refers to a computing paradigm that relies on particles known as qubits instead of the traditional ones and zeros in classical computing—its global leadership position is "certainly under siege," Tim Polk, assistant director of cybersecurity within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during an event in Washington.

"There are significant quantum programs in Canada, in the U.K., in the Netherlands, the [European Union], China," Polk said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "They don’t have the depth, the foundation, that the U.S. has from its long, long interest in quantum. But those programs are definitely going to pose a challenge to us and that’s really important to us … we believe [quantum] will be the foundation for so much economic development as well."

At OSTP, Polk has overseen the National Strategic Computing Initiative, an effort to promote research in high-performance computing, and a quantum research interagency working group.

Quantum computing could lead to advances in physics and material science, Polk explained. In time, he said, quantum algorithms could help solve "long-standing challenges with low-temperature nitrogen fixation and actually give us back 10 percent of the world’s natural gas supply that we currently spend to make fertilizer."

But the nation's quantum physicists often complain they're not able to get computer scientists to really pursue quantum computing, often because they don't have access to today's simulators, which may be prohibitively expensive to access, Polk said.

Read more: China’s New Satellite Puts Quantum Encryption Into Orbit
See also: The Subatomic Race to Harness Quantum Science
Don't miss: America’s Spies Want to Speed Up IBM’s Quest for a Quantum Computer

To really advance quantum, “we’re going to need to be able to build small quantum devices that are off the shelf, commercially available, and that we can actually use not in the lab but actually in real life," he said.

And building a workforce technologically savvy enough to research quantum is another challenge, he added.

"It really doesn’t help us to have a quantum computer if no one knows how to program it," Polk said.

By Mohana Ravindranath // Mohana Ravindranath covers civilian agency technology and IT policy for Nextgov. She previously covered IT for the Washington Post, and her work has also appeared in Business Insider and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

December 7, 2016