The Race to Harness Quantum is One the US Must Win

Guest Post by David Dean, the Center’s Director, explaining the QSC’s mission necessity and research implications.

The last several decades of technological progress have been defined by advances in silicon-based materials and their ability to advance computing, storage, and networking. These three components have come to define, and are still driving, the Digital Age.

But a new age is dawning as an enhanced understanding of quantum mechanics is enabling a tech revolution that could drastically accelerate innovation and cement America’s global economic leadership through much of the 21st Century.

Just as the silicon chip revolutionized the ways in which we gather, store, and share information, the realization of quantum technologies promises to do the same. And more.

From computers exponentially more powerful than today’s leading systems to virtually unhackable information networks to more precise sensors that will unlock the secrets of the universe and guide the future of urban development and human health, the potential of quantum mechanics to fundamentally transform the world and, by extension, increase our understanding of it is truly historic.

But significant obstacles remain.

Specifically, quantum technologies operate under the theory of quantum mechanics, that particularly odd field of physics in which nothing is quite as it seems; the mere act of observing a particle can alter its properties, making exploiting those properties inherently difficult.

China is investing heavily in these technologies and has set numerous records, including the demonstration of satellite-based quantum entanglement over a distance of 695 miles. China’s “Made in China 2025” policy aims to dominate the global science and innovation, including all aspects of quantum science and technology.

Answering their progress will require the full resources of America’s scientific brain trust.

And that’s precisely what researchers at the Quantum Science Center, led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), aim to do. I serve as the QSC Director and, in concert with industry and academia, the Center is tasked with harnessing the power of quantum mechanics for real-world applications to ensure America’s global scientific leadership in the coming decades.

We are one of five newly launched quantum information science centers funded by DOE, and we are uniquely positioned to make real advances across the quantum spectrum.

Last year ORNL researchers worked with Google and NASA to demonstrate quantum supremacy, or the ability of a quantum computer to outperform a classical computer on certain tasks (China’s researchers are in hot pursuit to surpass this demonstration).

In our demonstration, the quantum computer was Google’s Sycamore and the classical system was IBM’s Summit, housed at ORNL and currently the nation’s fastest system with a peak speed of more than 200 thousand trillion calculations per second. Summit represents the third time ORNL has stood up the world’s most powerful computer, efforts so critical and complex they were only possible via close collaboration with our industrial partners.

And while Summit is among the most impressive machines the world has ever seen, a practical and programmable quantum computer would allow us to understand nature and harness its properties like never before.

As the legendary physicist Richard Feynman once said: “If you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look so easy.”

That’s putting it mildly.

In order to achieve quantum computers, and other related technologies such as a fully quantum Internet and quantum sensor arrays capable of detecting the ever-elusive “dark matter,” we must first advance quantum materials, algorithms, and sensing.

Specifically, the QSC will discover and design new topological quantum materials, which are special because their electrons are confined to two dimensions, enabling them to exhibit unique physical properties. The translation of these properties into computing algorithms represents a multidisciplinary challenge at the core of the Center’s mission.

The QSC will then transition its discoveries to the private sector via a “co-design” philosophy that engages industry from the beginning to ensure our research meets the needs of both the private sector and the American scientific research communities. Such collaboration is critical to both the Center’s, and America’s, success.

Finally, the QSC will ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers by engaging, early on,  students and post-doctoral associates at partnering institutions to cultivate the expertise necessary to lead the quantum revolution into the coming years and decades. This continuous talent cultivation is critical if we are to realize the full potential of quantum mechanics to change our world for the better.

When successful, the QSC will enable a wide spectrum of technologies that allow us to view our world through an entirely new, and heretofore unachievable, lens. And even then we will only have scratched the surface.

Just as the national labs have worked with academia and industry to secure nuclear power, increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles, and stand up world-leading computing systems such as Summit, so too will we work side by side to secure our quantum future.

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