The House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection met today to discuss the emerging field of quantum computing, and how the still-nascent sector requires more attention in terms of funding and human capital.

But first, some explanation of the technology:

Quantum computing has been described as “harnessing and exploiting the laws of quantum mechanics to process information,” according to the briefing memo provided by the subcommittee.

“Traditional computers operate through instructions that use a binary system represented by the numbers 0 and 1; these numbers represent the ‘off’ or ‘on’ position of a logic gate on an integrated circuit,” the subcommittee’s briefing memo explains. “These positions can be expressed using binary digits (or ‘bits’) stored in a computer’s memory. Individually a bit can exist in one of two possible states (on/off). By contrast, quantum computers ‘use quantum bits, or qubits, to encode information as 0s, 1s, or both at the same time. This superposition of states enables quantum computers to manipulate enormous combinations of states at once.’”

Michael Brett, CEO, QxBranch, testified at the hearing that quantum computers aren’t just “better” than existing computers, they are a whole new innovation.

“Quantum computers are not just a faster computer,” he said. “They enable an entirely different approach to performing calculations–an approach that asks the question, what if we go beyond the limits of ‘classical’ computers and into the subatomic, or quantum realm, to perform computational work?”

While quantum computing may still be in an early development phase, it has attracted a great deal of private and public-sector attention. Venture capital firms have invested $147 million in quantum computing startups, and governments around the world have invested $2.2 billion in the technology, according to Deloitte research from last year.

At today’s hearing, subcommittee members heard from leaders in the field to discuss what quantum computing can offer and how the government can help it succeed.

“While the United States is on the forefront of many technologies, gaps in funding have left the U.S. scrambling to stay ahead in quantum computing,” explained Diana Franklin, professor, University of Chicago. “Major well-funded initiatives have been announced in Europe and China. Gaps in funding in the U.S. have significantly reduced the number of qualified quantum computing experts available for companies to hire to design and build quantum applications and hardware.

What Can Quantum Do?

Witnesses testified to the wide variety of industries that quantum computing could help.

“Globally, the race is on to apply quantum computing to problems of transport, energy production, health science, pharmacology and chemistry, finance and insurance, defense and national security,” Brett said.

Christopher Monroe, chief scientist and founder, IonQ and professor of physics, University of Maryland, highlighted four applications that are impossible under conventional computing but made possible with quantum computing. First, optimization of large data sets; second, the design of new materials and molecular functions; third, secure communications; and fourth, quantum sensing and metrology.

How Can Feds Help It Succeed?

All the witnesses at today’s hearing agreed on what quantum computing needs to succeed–funding and people.

Matthew Putman, founder and CEO, Nanotronics, called for greater investment in both quantum computing and artificial intelligence–a technology that both supports quantum computing and that benefits from advanced quantum capabilities.

Monroe explained that European and Asian countries are investing heavily in quantum computing and that the United States should take note.

“This explosion of activity worldwide should be a call for action in the United States,” Monroe said. “To ensure competitiveness and national security in the field of quantum information science, the United States should dedicate resources to coordinating existing Federal and private programs and filling in critical gaps.”

Additionally, Putman called on Feds to embrace immigration to ensure the United States has access to a talented and trained talent pool.

“We cannot work in isolation,” he said. “We need to embrace immigration and welcome strong talent from around the world with expertise in this area.”

In addition to immigration concerns, Brett highlighted the need for international cooperation.

“As American companies compete in the emerging quantum computing ecosystem, they will achieve their fullest success through international cooperation,” he testified. “We need to be able to access the best talent and technology globally, and that means partnering. There will be national security considerations for this technology, but if export restrictions are applied prematurely or without due consideration it will stifle commercial innovation.”

Monroe also called on the Federal government to establish a National Quantum Initiative (NQI)–something previously discussed during an October 2017 hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“An NQI will address one of the Grand Challenges of the 21st century–harnessing quantum as a fundamentally new technology to serve national needs in information infrastructure, chemical and biomedical research and development, cybersecurity, and defense capabilities,” he said. “As quantum information sciences have the potential to touch nearly all areas of science and technology, its development and implementation through the NQI will naturally engage all STEM fields.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.