The quantum computing race is on 

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Although scientists don’t completely understand the underlying science of quantum mechanics, a global geopolitical, military and commercial race is on for the development of affordable and reliable quantum computers and associated software. How long it will take and how much it will cost is far from clear.  

Over the next few years, the world will learn whether practical (not experimental) quantum computing is another “technology that is always 5 years away” or a revolution in high-end computing. Many governments and businesses fear they cannot be left behind, because quantum computing technology is so powerful. Thus, the race is on for a practical quantum computer with software. 

For the average person, there are few areas of science more confusing than quantum physics. No less than Albert Einstein once disputed some theoretical foundations of quantum mechanics; quantum notions like an object can be in two places or be in two different states at the same time do not make sense. But by the 1960s, quantum physics was established as a discipline, and by the 1980s it was commonly recognized that quantum mechanics could someday be used to operate a computer — and that quantum computers could be far more powerful than the transistor/chip-based computers that became widespread after World War II.  

By the 1990s, most scientists involved had concluded that a quantum-based computer could perform in some respects far faster than any conventional computer, even with the processing speed of conventional computers increasing. This led to the development of important algorithms and software platforms designed to harness the raw power of a quantum computer, and then to significant efforts in the 2000s to actually build a functioning and reliable quantum computer. Finally, all of this led to questions as to how such computers might actually be used and what tasks a quantum computer could perform that a conventional supercomputer could not.  

The results of these millennial investigations drew global attention to what until then had been largely theoretical. The speed of quantum computers could allow discoveries in fields in which the variables are so vast that the process would be out of the reach of conventional supercomputers. These include such fields as pharmaceuticals, patterns of climate, chemical compounds and new materials. Perhaps more important, the speed of quantum computing could allow virtually any cryptographic secret code to be broken, and it could supercharge the ability of artificial intelligence (and its robot progeny) to do almost anything imaginable at lightening speeds.  

During the 2010s, big tech companies like Google and IBM variously claimed that their experimental quantum computers could perform functions in minutes that it would take a supercomputer decades to perform. (It’s important to note, however, that the overwhelming number of calculations that any person, enterprise or government performs every day do not require the vast speed of a quantum computer; powerful chip-based computers will surely continue to serve almost every common computing function for the foreseeable future.) And so, by the 2020s, the commercial, geopolitical and military races to develop a working and reliable quantum computer and software for very special high-end functions had begun. 

Building a reliable quantum computer takes a lot of infrastructure, material and expert staff. For example, many prototypes rely on stable temperatures of near absolute zero, along with a variety of highly educated and experienced scientists. Although large companies like Google, IBM, Fujitsu, Amazon and Microsoft began investing in efforts to build practical quantum computers during the 2010s, start-up investments in quantum computing only began to take off in 2021-2022, at what McKinsey reports to be almost $2.5 billion per year (dropping to around $1.7 billion in 2023.)  

More important have been recent quantum investments by governments. Depending on the country involved, much government spending on quantum computer R&D is contracted out to technology companies — thus government and industry often have symbiotic quantum R&D efforts. Governments’ spending on quantum computing is driven by a combination of an economic fear of being left behind by other economic powers (EU, U.S., Japan, India and China) and a geopolitical fear of being overpowered by a military rival (U.S., China, Russia, NATO countries). 

By far, the largest government efforts to develop reliable quantum computing services are by China and the U.S., which have respectively committed to invest around $15 billion and $5 billion (the U.S. estimate excludes major associated private-sector investments.) China has established a multibillion-dollar Quantum Lab, while the US announced its National Quantum Initiative, which brings together billions in U.S. military, scientific and civil quantum efforts. Not far behind is the combination of the EU’s billion-dollar Flagship quantum Initiative and over $8 billion in commitments to associated quantum research by Germany, France and Holland. Finally, individual billion-dollar-plus quantum computing R&D commitments have been made by the UK, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Canada.  

While PR announcements about quantum developments are often issued by governments, big tech and start-ups, few, if any, claim that a practical/reliable quantum computer exists. Moreover, although important advances in quantum computing are likely to take place in secret within various nations’ military/intelligence programs, the usefulness of a secret military quantum computer designed to protect military secrets for eventual civil or commercial uses is unclear (secret military technologies sometimes take decades to find civil and commercial applications.)  

The development of reliable, quantum computers and supporting software will probably take years, and their eventual usefulness is likely to be tightly focused on secret cryptography or such mega-tasks as the development of new materials, drugs and chemicals or the analysis of financial or scientific data. Whether politicians, investors and the media have the patience to see this epic effort through to its conclusion is probably the largest, among many, quantum computing uncertainties.   

 Roger Cochetti has served as a senior executive with COMSAT, IBM, VeriSign and CompTIA. A former U.S. government official, he has helped found a number of nonprofits in the tech sector and is the author of textbooks on the history of satellite communications.  

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