The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy – Gadgets Price - Gadgets Price
The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy – Gadgets Price
The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy – Gadgets Price

The Gadgets Price Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

Quantum computers, sensors and communication networks have the potential to create huge societal and market opportunities – along with an equally large amount of disruption. Unfortunately, for most of us, a Ph.D. in physics to really understand how quantum technologies work, and celebrities 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 understand the magnitude of potential change: computers that can help us design new materials that combat the climate crisis, more accurate sensors without a reliance on GPS that enable truly autonomous vehicles and safer communications networks are just some of the many technologies that can emerge from quantum technology.
Read more about the Gadgets Price Global Affairs Project

The challenge of the quantum industry is not ambition; it’s scale. Physicists know how to design useful quantum devices. The challenge is to build larger devices that grow with innovative business models. The confluence of talented physicists, engineers and business leaders tackling the problem is cause for much confidence. More and more private investors are betting on the technology. They can’t afford not to – we can look back at the commercialization of quantum and compare it to the steam engine, electricity and the Internet – all of which represented fundamental platform shifts in the way society tackled problems and created value.

More difficult than quantum physics, however, is getting the US government’s regulatory and funding strategy toward the technology. Aligning various government agencies to move an industry forward, while navigating landmines of regulation, Byzantine government contract processes, and the geopolitical realities of both the threats and disruptions that quantum technology predicts will be a challenge far greater than building a one million qubit quantum computer.

While this claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, I’ve now worked in both worlds and seen it up close and personal. As a former CIA agent, even on the ‘point of the spear’, I have seen how slowly the government moves when left to its own devices. However, I have also seen the value it can bring when the right influencers in the right positions decide to make hard decisions.

Government can help pave the way for commercialization or bring the industry to its knees before it has a chance to flip. The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy in addition to its quantum R&D strategy. We need to get out of the lab and out into the world. To move the industry forward, the government must:

  1. Push more money into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We can thank DARPA for the internet and GPS. I imagine that one day we will thank DARPA and some parts of the Department of Energy for quantum. With more funding, DARPA should consider allocating larger amounts per company, focusing on long-term research into quantum error correction and quantum navigation.
  2. 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 science departments at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and to economically disadvantaged schools in the Established Program to Promote Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program to increase diversity in the quantum technology industry.
  3. 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 program to develop a quantum positioning system (QPS) that is more robust, compact, accurate and more secure than current GPS systems.
    Like ambitious defense programs for new jet fighters and nuclear modernization, deep tech companies can’t 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 as quantum technology. Otherwise, we condemn physicists and engineers to spend their time writing proposals to compete for future projects to keep the lights on.
    The government would also need to provide exponentially more funding to the Pentagon’s National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) program. NSIC’s role is to help hardware-centric companies cross the valley of death with non-dilutive investment. If the government is really serious about this, then these investments should be at least $5 million and above.
    The money that goes into this hardware commercialization will inevitably lead to devices used by the average person and other discoveries. The same quantum positioning systems that power undersea navigation could also power commercial autonomous vehicles and sensors for smarter and more environmentally friendly cities. Smartphones, the Internet and MRI machines are examples of unintended discoveries. The US taxpayer will recoup its money in long-term value creation, even if some companies inevitably fail or miss their intended goals.
  4. Despite the important role of government, it must know where to stay out of the way. The government should not create additional regulations through export controls until US companies have built a globally dominant quantum capacity. I understand the threats to national security we face in emerging technologies and the desire of the US government to stop rampant IP theft, anticompetitive practices and the use of these technologies for authoritarian purposes and power projection. But a key element of our national and economic security has been our openness. Regulation at this early stage will only hamper our ability to build global quantum companies and pose a greater threat.

The US government needs to inject more money into the commercial sector more quickly for these emerging technologies. This new technological era requires us to compete at a pace and scale that the government budget process cannot currently handle. Smaller companies can act quickly and we are in an era where speed, not efficiency, is paramount to begin with, as we must scale ahead of our geopolitical competition, which is pouring tens of billions of dollars directly into the industry.

When I was with the CIA, I often heard the words “Acta non verba” or “acts no words”. In this case, the money is put on the table properly and the industry is not regulated too early. Not everyone in high positions in the US government has to believe in the potential of quantum. I wouldn’t blame them if they have any doubts – this really goes beyond rocket science. But the smart move is to hedge. The US government should take such a gamble by pushing through a commercialization strategy now. In any case, it shouldn’t get in the way.

Read more about the Gadgets Price Global Affairs Project

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.