Two Years In, US Quantum-Science Coordinator Lays Out Next Steps
Three agencies involved in quantum research spent 2019 planning and 2020 launching new efforts.
Monday marked two years since the passage of the National Quantum Initiative, or NQI Act—and in that time, federal agencies followed through on its early calls and helped lay the groundwork for new breakthroughs across the U.S. quantum realm.
Now, the sights of those helping implement the law are set on the future.
“I would say in five years, something we'd love to see is...a better idea of, ‘What are the applications for a quantum computer that’s buildable in the next five to 10 years, that would be beneficial to society?’” Charles Tahan — the Office of Science and Technology Policy Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science — told Nextgov in an interview Friday. He also serves as the director of the National Quantum Coordination Office, a cooperation-pushing hub established by the legislation.
Tahan reflected on some foundational moves made over the last 24 months and offered a glimpse into his team’s big-ticket priorities for 2021.
Quantum devices and technologies are among an ever-evolving field that hones in on phenomena at the atomic scale. Potential applications are coming to light, and are expected to radically reshape science, engineering, computing, networking, sensing, communication and more. They offer promises like unhackable internet or navigation support in places disconnected from GPS.
Federal agencies have a long history of exploring physical sciences and quantum-related pursuits—but previous efforts were often siloed. Signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, the NQI Act sought to “provide for a coordinated federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security” of America. It assigned specific jobs for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Energy Department and National Science Foundation, among others, and mandated new collaborations to boost the nation’s quantum workforce talent pipeline and strengthen society’s grasp of this relatively fresh area of investment. The functions of the National Quantum Coordination Office, or NQCO, were also set forth in the bill, and it was officially instituted in early 2019. Since then, the group has helped connect an array of relevant stakeholders and facilitate new initiatives proposed by the law.
“Now, everything that's been called out in the act has been established—it’s started up,” Tahan said. He noted the three agencies with weighty responsibilities spent 2019 planning out their courses of action within their communities, and this year launching new efforts.
One of the latest was unveiled in August by the Energy Department, which awarded $625 million over five years—subject to appropriations—to its Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories to establish QIS Research Centers. In each, top thinkers will link up to push forward collaborative research spanning many disciplines. Academic and private-sector institutions also pledged to provide $340 million in contributions for the work.
“These are about $25 million each—that's a tremendous amount of students, and postdocs, and researchers,” Tahan said. “And those are spread out across the country, focusing on all different areas of quantum: computing, sensing and networking.”
NSF this summer also revealed the formation of new Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes to tackle fundamental research hurdles in quantum information science and engineering over the next half-decade. The University of Colorado, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, and University of California, Berkeley are set to head and house the first three institutes, though Tahan confirmed more could be launched next year. The initiative is backed by $75 million in federal funding—and while it will take advantage of existing infrastructures, non-governmental entities involved are also making their own investments and constructing new facilities.
“That's the foundation, you know,” Tahan said. “The teams have been formed, the research plans have been written—that's a tremendous amount of work—and now they're off actually working. So now, we start to reap the rewards because all the heavy lifting of getting people organized has been done.”
Together with NSF, OSTP also helped set in motion the National Q-12 Education Partnership. It intends to connect public, private and academic sector quantum players and cohesively create and release learning materials to help U.S. educators produce new courses to engage students with quantum fields. The work is ultimately meant to spur K-12 students' interest in the emerging areas earlier into their education, and NSF will award nearly $1 million across QIS education efforts through the work.
And beyond the government’s walls and those of academia, the NQI Act also presented new opportunities for industry. Meeting the law’s requirements, NIST helped convene a consortium of cross-sector stakeholders to strategically confront existing quantum-related technology, standards and workforce gaps, and needs. This year, that group—the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, or QED-C—bloomed in size, established a more formal membership structure and announced companies that make up its steering committee.
“It took a year or more to get all these companies together and then write partnership agreements. So, that partnership agreement was completed towards the beginning of summer, and the steering committee signed it over the summer, and now there are I think 100 companies or so who have signed it,” Tahan said. “So, it's up and running. It's a real economic development consortium—that’s a technical thing—and that's a big deal. And how big it is, and how fast it's growing is really, really remarkable.”
This fall also brought the launch of quantum.gov, a one-stop website streamlining federal work and policies. The quantum coordination office simultaneously released a comprehensive roadmap pinpointing crucial areas of needed research, deemed the Quantum Frontiers Report.
That assessment incorporates data collected from many workshops, and prior efforts OSTP held to promote the national initiative and establishes “eight frontiers” that “contain core problems with fundamental questions confronting” QIS today and must be addressed to push forward research and development breakthroughs in the space. They include “expanding opportunities for quantum technologies to benefit society,” “characterizing and mitigating quantum errors,” and more.
“It tries to cut through the hype a little bit,” Tahan explained. “It's a field that requires deep technical expertise. So, it's easy to be led in the wrong direction if you don't have all the data. So we try to narrow it down into ‘here are the important problems, here's what we really don't know, here’s what we do know, and go this way,’ and that will, hopefully benefit the whole enterprise.”