The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.
Quantum computers, sensors and communications networks have the potential to bring about enormous societal and market opportunities — along with an equal amount of disruption. Unfortunately for most of us it takes a Ph.D. in physics to truly understand how quantum technologies work, and luminaries in the field of physics will be the first to admit that even their understanding of quantum mechanics remains incomplete.
Fortunately you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to grasp the magnitude of potential change: computers that can help us design new materials that fight the climate crisis, more accurate sensors without a reliance on GPS that enable truly autonomous vehicles and more secure communications networks are just a few of the many technologies that may emerge from quantum technology.
The challenge of the quantum industry isn’t ambition; it’s scale. Physicists know how to design useful quantum devices. The challenge is building larger devices that scale along with innovative business models. The confluence of talented physicists, engineers and business leaders tackling the problem is reason for much confidence. More private investors are placing bets on the technology. They can’t afford not to — we may look back on the commercialization of quantum and compare it to the steam engine, electricity, and the internet — all of which represented fundamental platform shifts in how society tackled problems and created value.
More difficult than quantum physics, however, is getting the U.S. government’s regulatory and funding strategy right toward the technology. Aligning various government entities to push forward an industry while navigating landmines of regulation, Byzantine government contracting processes and the geopolitical realities of both the threats and disruptions that quantum technology portends will be a challenge much greater than building a million-qubit quantum computer.
While this claim may be slight hyperbole, I’ve now worked in both worlds and seen it up close and personal. As a former CIA case officer, even at the “tip of the spear,” I’ve seen how slowly the government moves if left to its own devices. However, I’ve also seen the value it can bring if the right influencers in the right positions decide to make hard decisions.
The government can help pave the pathway for commercialization or cut the industry off at its knees before it has a chance to run. The U.S. government needs a quantum commercialization strategy in addition to its quantum R&D strategy. We need to get out of the lab and into the world. To push the industry forward, the government should:
- Push more funding to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We can thank DARPA for the internet and GPS. I imagine we will one day thank DARPA, and some parts of the Department of Energy, for quantum. With increased funding, DARPA should consider allocating larger amounts per company focused on longer-term research in quantum error correction and quantum navigation.
- Ask the National Science Foundation (NSF) to buy 20 different universities different types of quantum computers for use by researchers and students. The NSF should provide grants to physics departments at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and at economically disadvantaged schools in the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program to increase diversity in the quantum technology industry.
- Create a large, well-funded program within the Department of Defense for quantum sensors that goes beyond small-scale research. For example, the Pentagon could fund a $200 million dollar program to field a quantum positioning system (QPS) that is rugged, compact, more accurate and more secure than current GPS systems.
Like ambitious defense programs for new fighter jets and nuclear modernization, deep tech companies cannot cross the “valley of death” on one $800,000 contract at a time. They need significant long-term commitments, especially in such a hardware-intensive field like quantum technology. Otherwise, we’ll condemn physicists and engineers to spending their time writing proposals to compete for future projects in order to keep the lights on.
The government should also provide exponentially more funding to the Pentagon’s National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) program. NSIC’s role is to help hardware-focused companies cross the valley of death with non-dilutive investments. If the government is really serious about this, then these investments need to be at the level of at least $5 million and above.
The money going into this hardware commercialization will inevitably lead to devices used by the average person and other discoveries. The same quantum positioning systems that power submarine navigation can also power commercial autonomous vehicles and sensors for smart and more environmentally-friendly cities. Smartphones, the internet and MRI machines are examples of unintended discoveries. The U.S. taxpayer will recoup their money in long-term value creation even when some companies inevitably fail or miss their intended targets.
- Despite the government’s important role, it needs to know where to stay out of the way. The government shouldn’t create additional regulation through export controls until U.S. companies have built a globally dominant quantum capability. I understand the national security threats we face in emerging technologies and the U.S. government’s desire to stop rampant IP theft, anti-competitive practices and the use of these technologies for authoritarian ends and power projection purposes. But a key element to our national and economic security has been our openness. Regulation at this early stage will only stymie our ability to build global quantum companies and be a greater threat.
The U.S. government must inject more money more quickly into the commercial sector for these emerging technologies. This new technological era demands that we compete at a pace and scale that the government budgeting process currently is not built to handle. Smaller companies can move fast and we are in an era where speed, not efficiency, matters most in the beginning because we have to scale up before our geopolitical competition, which is directly pouring tens of billions of dollars into the sector.
When I was at the CIA, I often heard the words “Acta non verba” or “deeds not words.” In this case, the deeds are putting money on the table in the right ways, as well as not regulating the industry too early. Not everyone in senior U.S. government positions has to believe in quantum’s potential. I wouldn’t blame them if they have some doubts — this is truly beyond rocket science. But the smart move is to hedge. The U.S. government should make such a bet by pushing a commercialization strategy now. At the least it shouldn’t stand in the way of it.