The U.S. is fac­ing a new ‘Sput­nik mo­ment’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY C.L. MAX NIKIAS The writer is the pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and mem­ber of the Na­tional Academy of Engi­neer­ing.

Af­ter the Sovi­ets launched Sput­nik in 1957, we saw how fed­eral in­vest­ment in U.S. pri­vate in­dus­try and aca­demic re­search al­lowed the United States to catch up, win the space race and hold decades of mil­i­tary and tech­nol­ogy dom­i­nance. There is no doubt: Amer­ica emerged vic­to­ri­ous from the Cold War be­cause of its in­vest­ments in science and tech­nol­ogy.

Today, the land­scape of con­flict is in­creas­ingly be­ing driven by a new set of fac­tors, which Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Daniel Coats summed up as a global “com­pe­ti­tion for tech­no­log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity.” Yet our most ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies are still largely based on Cold War-era in­ven­tions.

The de­vel­op­ment of quan­tum tech­nol­ogy presents the United States with its new “Sput­nik mo­ment.” Quan­tum sys­tems prom­ise to up­end ev­ery­thing that came be­fore. But once again, Amer­ica has some catch­ing up to do.

A na­tional strat­egy, like the one this na­tion em­barked on fol­low­ing the Sput­nik launch, will help get us there. And, yes, the stakes are just that high. If not higher.

The science is fa­mously hard to grasp, but this is what’s im­por­tant: Quan­tum tech takes ad­van­tage of quan­tum physics to ma­nip­u­late atoms and sub­atomic par­ti­cles in new, po­ten­tially pow­er­ful ways. For ex­am­ple, the speed and power of today’s com­put­ers are phys­i­cally lim­ited to the tran­sis­tors that carry out their func­tions. That’s be­cause tran­sis­tors are ba­si­cally on-off switches for the flow of elec­trons in com­put­ers (typ­i­cally rep­re­sented in val­ues of ze­ros and ones, or “bits”).

But quan­tum com­put­ing prom­ises a way around this lim­i­ta­tion through the quirks of quan­tum physics. Specif­i­cally, the bits in quan­tum com­put­ers can ex­ist in more than one state at a time, can in­flu­ence each other in­stan­ta­neously from great dis­tances, and can act as par­ti­cles and waves si­mul­ta­ne­ously. These new bits — known as quan­tum bits or “qubits” — cre­ate the po­ten­tial to process data much faster than tra­di­tional com­put­ers.

This tech­nol­ogy holds im­mense prom­ise. It could al­low us to com­mu­ni­cate faster, more ac­cu­rately and more se­curely than ever be­fore — meet­ing not only the se­cu­rity chal­lenges of to­mor­row but also rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing ev­ery­thing from code-break­ing to cy­ber­se­cu­rity to cli­mate mod­el­ing, and open­ing new fron­tiers in medicine and materials science.

Who­ever gets this tech­nol­ogy first will also be able to crip­ple tra­di­tional de­fenses and power grids and ma­nip­u­late the global econ­omy. The surest way to de­ter such be­hav­ior is to win this race.

Yet, many sus­pect that China is al­ready pulling ahead. Although the coun­try’s to­tal in­vest­ment is un­known, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is build­ing a $10 bil­lion, 4-mil­lion­square-foot Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory for Quan­tum In­for­ma­tion Sci­ences, due to open in two years.

China has al­ready launched into or­bit the “Quan­tum Ex­per­i­ments at Space Scale” satel­lite. Us­ing quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, the satel­lite suc­cess­fully sent “un­break­able” code from space last year.

In com­par­i­son to China’s in­vest­ments, U.S. gov­ern­ment-funded re­search in quan­tum tech­nol­ogy, stood at just $300 mil­lion a year as of 2016.

In 1958, the year af­ter Amer­ica was jolted into ac­tion by the launch of Sput­nik, NASA was given an ini­tial an­nual bud­get of less than $800 mil­lion in today’s dol­lars. By 1962, af­ter the United States once again came in se­cond — this time in the race to hu­man space­flight — NASA’s bud­get jumped to more than $10 bil­lion. Amer­ica never looked back.

A sim­i­lar mis­fire in the race for quan­tum tech­nol­ogy would not be as easy to over­come. If the United States is to lead, im­me­di­ate in­vest­ment is needed to fund ad­vances in quan­tum en­cryp­tion, quan­tum com­put­ing and quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Some of this is al­ready un­der­way, but we are only scratch­ing the sur­face. The Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion has listed quan­tum tech­nol­ogy as one of its 10 big ideas and has made mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ments in se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­search. And the U.S. In­tel­li­gence Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Ac­tiv­ity, which op­er­ates un­der the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence, re­cently se­lected my univer­sity, the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, to lead a consortium of in­sti­tu­tions to build and test 100-qubit quan­tum ma­chines. The largest quan­tum com­puter cur­rently op­er­at­ing is a 72-qubit sys­tem built by Google.

Other in­sti­tu­tions are break­ing im­por­tant ground in this area as well, in­clud­ing Har­vard Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Mary­land. But these ef­forts will only mark a wa­ter­shed if our na­tion pri­or­i­tizes quan­tum re­search as it did aero­space and de­fense in the mid-20th century.

Like then, crit­i­cal part­ner­ships be­tween academia, gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor can build the hu­man cap­i­tal we need to lead in the quan­tum era.

But if we do not take the ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion, Amer­ica’s dom­i­nance in a tech­nol­ogy-driven world will be short­lived. Congress should use the 2019 bud­get de­bate to form a na­tional quan­tum strat­egy and to en­sure it is funded ap­pro­pri­ately not only next year but also in the years to come.

Our lead­ers did not fail us in 1957. Our lead­ers can­not fail us now.


In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sput­nik, which trig­gered a Cold War space race with the United States.

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