In the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. battled the Soviet Union in the race to conquer space. American presidents told the nation that beating Russia was a both a scientific and a national security imperative. Today, there’s a new kind of technology race underway that most people have never even heard about. And the stakes are high.
If you walked the floor at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you would have seen something mighty unusual among all the smart TVs and robot appliances on display. Over at IBM’s booth you could view a futuristic machine that one observer said looks like a steampunk chandelier. It’s the innards of what the company claims is the world’s first commercially available quantum computer, the Q1. It’s IBM’s very public entry into a race to harness an entirely new kind of tech – a race to master quantum technology before another country does.
Quantum computers work very differently than what are now called “classical computers.” Think of instructions a classical computer executes as a series of switches, or bits – each is in either the “zero” or “one” position. In quantum computing, a bit can be a zero, a one or both at the same time. They’re called “qubits,” and they make it possible to do a great many computing tasks at once.
Quantum is an ideal platform for artificial intelligence and financial modeling, and other applications that need massive computing power. But aside from commercial advantages, Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd who represents the 23rd District says there’s another reason technologists are focused on quantum.
“Whoever achieves quantum first is going to be able to break all the encryption that’s currently being used,” Hurd says.
Right now, data that is encrypted, whether it’s a password, the plans for a new fighter plane, or the names and locations of intelligence officers, can be stolen, but can’t be read unless the thief can break the encryption code. When fully implemented, quantum technology will be able crack those codes, no matter how strong they are.
But IBM’s shiny Q1 – which isn’t actually for sale but can be accessed via the cloud – can’t defeat encryption yet.
Microsoft, Google, Austin startup Strangeworks and universities including the University of Texas at Austin, are among others researching the technology. And recently, the federal government got involved. Late last year, President Donald Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act. It received strong bipartisan support in Congress – a pretty rare feat. The bill allocates $1.2 billion for research in quantum technology, and will establish multiple national quantum computing centers where the government can direct basic research.
Hurd says that’s an appropriate role for government to take, much as it did when the space race was at it hottest.
“When you look at the amount of money that’s required to do this kind of research, there’s not an immediate payoff,” Hurd says. “And so, will a company spend a decade, 20 years, working on this particular issue? Unlikely. But they can be an important partner.”
Another role the government can play, says Hurd, who was a CIA officer before he was elected to Congress, is to engage industry and scientists in a dialog about the ethics of technology like quantum.
“The government needs to be thinking about what are the ramifications of this technology. … The way quantum can particularly influence artificial intelligence, the ethics around AI, is something that the federal government should be involved in.”
Hurd says he thinks the U.S. and China are roughly tied when it comes to quantum. He says the U.S. does have one edge.
“I will tell you this: I will take entrepreneurs, and creativity and people in a free market any day of the week over an authoritarian regime,” he says.
If IBM, Microsoft and Strangeworks have their way, the free market will be a big help in their race to build full-scale quantum computers. But $1.2 billion in government backing could help them over the finish line.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.