The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal includes significant increases in funding for artificial intelligence and quantum computing, while cutting overall research and development spending. If Congress agrees to it, artificial intelligence, or AI, funding would nearly double, and quantum computing would receive a 50% boost over last year’s budget, doubling in 2022, to $860 million. The administration says these two fields of research are important to U.S. national security, in part because China also invests heavily in these fields.
Quantum computing uses quantum mechanics to solve highly complex problems more quickly than they can be solved by standard or classical computers. Though fully functional quantum computers don’t yet exist, scientists at academic institutions, as well as at IBM, Google and other companies, are working to build such systems.
Scott Aaronson is a professor of computer science and the founding director of the Quantum Information Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He says applications for quantum computing include simulation of chemistry and physics problems. These simulations enable scientists to design new materials, drugs, superconductors and solar cells, among other applications.
Aaronson says the government’s role is to support basic scientific research – the kind needed to build and perfect quantum computers.
“We do not yet know how to build a fully scalable quantum computer. The quantum version of the transistor, if you like, has not been invented yet,” Aaronson says.
On the software front, researchers have not yet developed applications that take full advantage of quantum computing’s capabilities.
“That’s often misrepresented in the popular press, where it’s claimed that a quantum computer is just a black box that does everything,” Aaronson says.
Competition between the U.S. and China in quantum computing revolves, in part, around the role such a system could play in breaking the encryption that makes things secure on the internet.
Truly useful quantum computing applications could be as much as a decade away, Aaronson says. Initially, these tools would be highly specialized.
“The way I put it is that we’re now entering the very, very early, vacuum-tube era of quantum computers,” he says.