Federal Initiatives in Quantum Information Science Growing

IBM 50-qubit quantum computer

The federal government is making a big push in quantum information science or QIS research across all major research agencies.

Quantum technologies could transform key industries and launch future industries, but fundamental research roadblocks remain with most experts predicting it will take 5-10 years at least before the U.S. produces a functional quantum computer. At the moment, QIS technologies are remain experimental and will need substantial advances in hardware and software to unlock their potential. 

New federal QIS research investments were kickstarted by Congress in 2018 with the National Quantum Initiative Act. The legislation established a quantum consortia led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes by the National Science Foundation; National Quantum Information Science Research Centers by the Department of Energy; and greater interagency coordination of federal QIS research and development.

QIS presents major implications for both U.S. national and homeland security. Concerns have been raised about the potential for a quantum computer being able to break public-key cryptography — the bedrock of cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, national security systems and everyday digital devices. President Biden recently issued National Security Memorandum 10 outlining the potential threats and opportunities posed by QIS advancements. The memorandum states: “a quantum computer of sufficient size and sophistication — also known as a cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC) — will be capable of breaking much of the public-key cryptography used on digital systems across the United States and around the world,” The memorandum outlines specific actions for agencies to take as the United States begins the multi-year process of migrating vulnerable computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography, stating: “while the full range of applications of quantum computers is still unknown, it is nevertheless clear that America’s continued technological and scientific leadership will depend, at least in part, on the nation’s ability to maintain a competitive advantage in quantum computing and QIS.” 

Recognizing the potential and the threats stemming from QIS, Congress has also increased investments in QIS for national security. Across the Department of Defense, budget requests for quantum-related programs increased 37 percent between fiscal years 2020 and 2022. Recently the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., was named the Quantum Information Science Research Center for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. AFRL also received an additional $8 million to conduct research and development in QIS at the adjacent Innovare Advancement Center which allows for research collaborations with academic and industry partners in an unclassified laboratory setting.

Industrial Policy — Can the U.S. Find Consensus, Consistency?

U.S. industrial and attendant technology policy has a long and tortured existence often rising and falling in a decadal threat cycle: communism in the 50’s/60’s, oil shocks in the 1970’s, and the rise of Japan in the 1980’s. For many years starting in the 1990’s, the term “industrial policy” was considered verboten, off-limits in policy circles especially among free-market Republicans who preferred to let market forces drive technology investments. This led to a whip-saw effect, U.S. technology initiatives would flourish in times of threat, then languish and die as the U.S. defaulted to market forces alone. Unfortunately, while market forces are highly efficient and effective in picking winners and losers, this process has left the U.S. vulnerable, as the market for critical technologies (and their attendant supply chains) globalized.

With these shifts becoming apparent in the past few years, Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is out today with a new white paper on Strategic Industrial Policy. Because of an increasing reliance on sophisticated globally-sourced dual-use technologies such as semiconductors, Atkinson argues that the United States should adopt what he terms a Strategic-Industrial Policy. In the white paper, Atkinson attempts to refute the standard arguments against industrial policy — picking winners and losers, focus on high profile failures, politicization risks — while arguing that the threat from China to both U.S. economic and national security demands a new approach to U.S. industrial policy.

Critical Infrastructure: Supply Chain Risk, Semiconductor Shortages

The White House announced a new initiative on securing the supply chain in several critical infrastructure sectors including Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API’s) necessary for medicines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, rare earth minerals, advanced batteries and, semiconductor chips & advanced packaging.

The executive order will order an immediate 100-day review by federal agencies to assess vulnerabilities in these areas as well as a broader one-year review of supply chain risks across several critical infrastructure sectors including the defense industrial base; the public health and biological preparedness industrial base; the information and communications technology (ICT) industrial base; the energy sector industrial base; the transportation industrial base; and supply chains for agricultural commodities and food production.

A growing problem is a world-wide shortage of key semiconductor chips in several industries including automotive manufacturing. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, both Ford and General Motors have had to slow or suspend production lines due to chip shortages.

While the planned Executive Order will not alleviate the immediate crunch in semiconductor supply, the Administration and leaders in Congress have begun work on legislation to spur new investments in domestic semiconductor manufacturing.