The TechCrunch Global Affairs project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech industry and global politics.
Quantum computers, sensors and communication networks have the potential to create enormous societal and business opportunities, as well as an equal amount of disruption. Unfortunately for most of us, it takes a doctorate. in physics to truly understand how quantum technologies work, and luminaries in the field of physics will be the first to admit that even their understanding of quantum mechanics remains incomplete.
Fortunately, you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to grasp the scale of the potential change: computers that can help us design new materials that fight the climate crisis, more accurate sensors without resorting to GPS that enabling truly autonomous vehicles and more secure communications networks are just a few of the many technologies that can emerge from quantum technology.
The challenge of the quantum industry is not ambition; it is the scale. Physicists know how to design useful quantum devices. The challenge is to create larger devices that scale with innovative business models. The confluence of talented physicists, engineers and business leaders tackling the problem is a reason for much confidence. More and more private investors are betting on technology. They can’t afford not to – we can look back at the commercialization of quantum and compare it to the steam engine, electricity, and the internet – all of which have represented fundamental platform changes. in the way the company has approached problems and created value.
However, it is more difficult than quantum physics to steer the US government’s regulatory and funding strategy towards technology. Aligning various government entities to advance an industry while navigating landmines regulation, Byzantine government procurement processes, and the geopolitical realities of threats and disruption that quantum technology portends will be a far greater challenge. than building a quantum computer of one million qubits.
While this statement may be a slight hyperbole, I have now worked in both worlds and have seen it up close and personally. As a former CIA affairs officer, even at the “tip of the spear,” I have seen how slowly the government moves forward if left on its own. However, I’ve also seen the value it can bring if the right influencers in the right positions decide to make tough decisions.
Government can help pave the way for commercialization or bring the industry to its knees before it has a chance to function. The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy in addition to its quantum R&D strategy. We have to get out of the lab and into the world. To move the industry forward, the government should:
- Increase funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We can thank DARPA for the internet and the GPS. I imagine we will someday thank DARPA and parts of the Department of Energy for the quantum. With increased funding, DARPA should consider allocating larger amounts per company focused on longer-term research in quantum error correction and quantum navigation.
- Ask the National Science Foundation (NSF) to buy different types of quantum computers at 20 different universities for researchers and students. NSF is expected to provide grants to physics departments at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and economically disadvantaged schools under the Established Program to Boost Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to increase diversity in the science industry. quantum technology.
- Create a large, well-funded program within the MoD for quantum sensors that goes beyond small-scale research. For example, the Pentagon could fund a $ 200 million program to build a robust, compact, more accurate, and more secure Quantum Positioning System (QPS) than current GPS systems.
Like ambitious defense programs for new fighter jets and nuclear modernization, high-tech companies cannot cross the “valley of death” with just one $ 800,000 contract at a time. They need significant long-term commitments, especially in an area as hardware-intensive as quantum technology. Otherwise, we’ll doom physicists and engineers to spending their time writing proposals to compete for future projects to keep the lights on.
The government is also expected to provide exponential funding to the Pentagon’s National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) program. NSIC’s role is to help hardware-focused companies navigate the valley of death with non-dilutive investments. If the government is really serious about this, then these investments must be at least $ 5 million and more.
The money invested in this marketing of equipment will inevitably lead to devices used by the average person and other discoveries. The same quantum positioning systems that power underwater navigation can also power autonomous commercial vehicles and sensors for smarter, more eco-friendly cities. Smartphones, the Internet, and MRI scanners are examples of unintentional discoveries. The American taxpayer will get their money back by creating long-term value, even when some companies inevitably fail or miss their targets.
- Despite the important role of government, it must know where to stand aside. The government should not create additional regulation through export controls until American companies build globally dominant quantum capacity. I understand the threats to national security we face in emerging technologies and the desire of the US government to stop the endemic intellectual property theft, anti-competitive practices and the use of these technologies for authoritarian ends and ends. power projection. But a key element of our national and economic security has been our openness. Regulation at this early stage will only hamper our ability to build global quantum enterprises and pose a greater threat.
The US government needs to get more money into the business sector faster for these emerging technologies. This new technological age demands that we be competitive at a pace and on a scale that the government’s budget process is currently not designed to handle. Small businesses can scale quickly and we are in an age where speed, not efficiency, matters most early on, as we need to grow ahead of our geopolitical competition, which is directly injecting tens of billions of dollars into the industry. .
When I was in the CIA, I often heard the words “Acta non verba” or “deeds not words”. In this case, the acts put money on the table in the right way and do not regulate the industry too soon. Not everyone in leadership positions in the US government has to believe in quantum potential. I wouldn’t blame them if they have any doubts – it’s really beyond science fiction. But the best thing to do is to cover up. The US government should make such a bet by pushing a marketing strategy now. At least that shouldn’t stand in the way.