quantum computing

Quantum computing: Expensive, uncertain, nascent -- and essential

Quantum computing and communications technology is at least 10 years away, likely to require billions in investments that may not pay off, but absolutely essential to the nation’s future.

That’s according to a recent technology assessment of quantum computing by the Government Accountability Office. GAO checked in with quantum experts in government, academia and industry to distill thinking on the technology’s potential applications, benefits and drawbacks;  factors that could affect development; and policy options to help address those factors.

Quantum computing development will depend on collaboration across disciplines, sectors and countries, a skilled workforce and long-term investments ranging from targeted research to test beds and grand challenges. A robust supply chain must also be in place to deliver essential components from rare-Earth minerals to manufacturing capabilities.

Quantum communications, which could revolutionize aspects of information transmission, will also require advances in network components and architectures. GAO said it expects quantum networking to start with pre-quantum networks, such as those that can exchange encryption keys over short distances and have already been demonstrated. Quantum networks would allow for two parties to directly communicate by creating shared, entangled quantum states. A quantum internet connecting global quantum and classical computing sites may take decades, the report said.

Both quantum computing and quantum communications will require more work on hardware, software, algorithms, programming languages, memory and supporting technologies. Even when fully realized, the technology faces potential limitations, including results that are difficult to interpret, slow data transmission rates, susceptibility to jamming and cyberattacks as well as high energy costs. Additionally, industry may find that quantum technologies have prohibitively high costs and complexity, making a return on investment unclear.

Nevertheless, the potential applications are enticing. Quantum computing has potential to improve agriculture, energy, finance, pharmaceuticals, supply chains and security, but for the near term, GAO found, classical computing will be a better option until quantum machines demonstrate significantly improved results at a reasonable cost.  That ROI, the experts said,  will likely vary by application.

To encourage the development of quantum technologies, GAO recommended policymakers encourage collaboration across disciplines, sectors and nations to speed technology transfer. Expanding the potential workforce is also critical, so creating a quantum curriculum and supporting graduate training programs will help until specific workforce needs become apparent. Additionally, policymakers should incentivize industry investment in quantum technologies through testbeds, research centers and grand challenges and the establishment of a robust secure supply chain. 

Read the full report here.

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