Government’s quantum efforts are shifting to a near-term strategy

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As the National Quantum Initiative Act is set to advance to a House vote, one federal official described the technology as “the next thing” on the horizon.

Proposed updates to the federal government’s legal framework on quantum technology and agency research and development efforts have both moved to prioritize the near-term impacts of what has long been seen as a still-emerging technology. On Thursday, government officials spoke in Palo Alto about the growing presence of quantum information systems research and development at a federal level, illuminating both the congressional and agency-led initiatives that stand to push the government’s QIST agenda further.

Featured in a plenary meeting discussion hosted by the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, Alan McQuinn, a staff member on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, detailed the strong bipartisan effort to reauthorize the National Quantum Initiative Act. 

McQuinn said that as the House worked to update the bill, which was passed in committee and is eligible to go to the House floor for a vote in the coming months, lawmakers intend the legislation to more broadly update the government’s quantum efforts. Following over 3,000 comments from stakeholders on the legislation, McQuinn said the reauthorization adds updates to scientific definitions and focuses on investing in near-term quantum sciences applications. 

“We wanted to start moving towards use cases, moving towards applications, to try and show proof of need for this technology so that it can be deployed across economic sectors,” he said. “Throughout the bill, you'll see policies to try and develop quantum applications. You'll also see a greater focus on short term use cases, pilot projects, demonstrations and more.”

McQuinn also noted the updated NQIA wants to promote the domestic development of a quantum information systems-fluent workforce, particularly with “significant updates” to workforce and education programs, like fellowships and traineeships across multiple levels of education.

Touching on federal agency operations, McQuinn confirmed that the latest version of the NQIA also sets out to give $1.4 billion over four years to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA for various testbed initiatives and other programming.

Other federal agencies have followed suit in focusing their R&D efforts on near-term applications for quantum sciences. John Burke, the principal director for Quantum at the Department of Defense, said that his agency is prioritizing innovating in the quantum information sciences field, focusing on improving quantum sensing devices and quantum clocks.

“When I first took over this position, really pushing on quantum sensing was the first priority and so there's appropriations under consideration in Congress right now,” Burke said. “Quantum computing is the next thing.”

Burke touched on both funding and workforce constraints as challenges in deepening the U.S. quantum information R&D posture, but also said more knowledge about the exact implications of fault-tolerant quantum computing are needed prior to investing in potential solutions. New programs within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are focused on delivering better analyses about which applications and capabilities are worth pursuing based on use cases, economic benefits and risks of new QIST systems. 

“I think our assessment is going to change over time, that the gap between applications and capabilities is narrowing and obviously everyone's working towards that,” he said. “We need to start thinking about how to get ahead of that.”