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Emerging tech needs enough runway to take off, experts say

With its potential to process big data in a fraction of the time it takes today, quantum computing promises to upend current encryption, weather forecasting, financial modeling, medical research and more. But as government maps out its plans for the emerging technology, focusing too much on future applications could ultimately hinder quantum's development, said Joan Hoffman, a program manager at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab.

While there is plenty of energy and excitement about quantum computing, the technology "is still very much in its infancy," Hoffman told the audience at an April 16 Intelligence and National Security Alliance event. "I think there's a real risk if people's expectations get too far ahead of what we're able to do," she said. "If we fail to identify some sort of medium-term applications, there's a risk of a fall-off there."

Delivering some applications in the near term will be key to maintaining interest from lawmakers and other investors, she said. In fact, although the National Quantum Initiative Act, passed in December, called for a $1.2 billion jumpstart over 10 years to fuel quantum research, the initiative "has not been funded yet."

Still, the intelligence community is at work on quantum and artificial intelligence applications. Stacey Dixon, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, said the research agency is "in the process of starting" two AI programs relating to information assurance and data protection. The agency also supports several quantum-focused programs.

The White House's fiscal year 2020 budget does specifically carve out funds for research in the quantum and AI fields. With that proposal, plus the legislative backing behind the importance of the technologies' research, Dixon said to prove their worth, "we just need a little bit of time."

And despite limited federal funding to date, industry has begun investing in quantum development and other emerging technologies "that used be the area government had to lead," Dixon said.

Emerging technology presents special difficulties recruiting talent.

Dixon said that IARPA has been investing in relatively low-cost, open prize challenges to allow academic and commercial teams to compete, offering winners a check. Still, those alternatives cannot entirely stand in for full-time employees dedicated to research.

Dixon said that a unique hiring challenge for quantum, as opposed to another tech space like cybersecurity, is that "not a lot of students are actually studying that yet."

"We're starting from behind, but eventually, it's going to have the same problems as the other [tech areas]," she said.

Because it's still early days for these emerging technologies, government has a unique opportunity to make inroads. But taking advantage of that will require more transparency, outreach and trust-building on the part of government, Dixon said.

"If you look at other countries who want to have the tech advantage, they are required in many cases to support their government and do research for the good of the country," she said. "I don't want to have to require anyone."

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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