The United States has formally joined the race for the next big thing–quantum computing–hoping to keep pace with China in developing the technology that could revolutionize everything about the way computing is done and quickly make current approaches obsolete.

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In December, just before the current partial Federal government shutdown, President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act into law, pledging $1.2 billion over the next five years to support collaborative development of quantum information science (QIS) among government labs, academia, and the private sector. The act, which was approved overwhelmingly by Congress in December, is intended to spur development in the field, which could substantially change everything from artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to medical research, pharmaceuticals, and supply chain management.

Quantum computing is radically different from the approach that has been followed since computing’s earlier days. Traditional computing is built on binary code in which each bit is a 1 or a 0. Quantum computing operates on the principle of superposition in which things can exist in multiple states at the same time–in the case of computing, bits as both 1 and 0 simultaneously. Those multi-state bits are called qubits, and when combined (a state called superposition) in a stable environment (that is, they cohere), they hold the potential for crunching massive amounts of data at unheard-of speeds and efficiency. Quantum processors and computers will be smaller and use a lot less power than current machines; a hand-sized quantum machine could, theoretically, outperform the most advanced supercomputer.

Proponents say that mainstream quantum computing is only about 10 years away, but getting to that point isn’t yet a done deal, which is why investing in its development is considered so important. China has gone all in, having launched a quantum satellite in 2016 and a year later began construction on a $10 billion quantum applications research center.

The U.S. is looking to either stay a step ahead, keep pace, or catch up to China, depending on who you listen to. While putting some funding behind quantum’s development, the new law also doles out some key assignments to agencies:

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will use existing programs to train scientists in QIS, and will establish collaborative groups involving industry, academia, and Federal labs to advance QIS and quantum engineering. NIST also is to convene a consortium to map out what needs to be done to establish quantum standards and address issues such as cybersecurity.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will support education and human resources development in the field, which will include establishing programs to provide graduate students training in QIS, and award grants to universities or non-profit organizations for at least two, and up to as many as five, multidisciplinary centers for quantum research and education.

The Department of Energy will conduct a basic research program on QIS, addressing quantum information theory, physics, computational science, math and algorithm development, networking, and other factors. The department will also coordinate quantum research being done at Energy labs and research centers.

At the White House, the law establishes a National Quantum Coordination Office, as well as a Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science under the White House’s National Science and Technology Council. The subcommittee will be chaired by top officials from NIST, NSF, and DoE, and include representatives from NASA, the Department of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and any other agencies the president decides to add.

Some in the technology field are calling quantum computing the next real space/arms race. While a lot of attention has been focused lately on artificial intelligence, many technologists say that is it quantum computing–which could supercharge AI–that is the real game-changer. Quantum computing also promises to remake cybersecurity, with the ability to create (or break) traditional cryptography, while accelerating research into any number of sciences. Considering its potential impact, who gets there first will likely make a big difference.

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