Laura E. Thomas is Senior Director of National Security Solutions at the quantum sensor and computer company ColdQuanta. She is a former Central Intelligence Agency clerk and base chief who has built and managed sensitive programs at CIA headquarters and abroad on several international assignments.
the TechCrunch Global Affairs project explores the increasingly intertwined relationship between the technology sector and world politics.
Quantum computers, sensors and communication networks have the potential to create enormous social and market opportunities – and just as much disruption. Unfortunately, most of us need a Ph.D. in physics, to really 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 is incomplete.
Fortunately, you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to grasp the magnitude of potential change: computers that can help us develop new materials to combat the climate crisis, more accurate sensors without GPS that enable truly autonomous vehicles and safer communication, networks are just a few of the many technologies that can emerge from quantum technology.
The quantum industry challenge is not ambition; it is the standard. Physicists know how to design useful quantum devices. The challenge is to build larger devices that are scalable along with innovative business models. The gathering of talented physicists, engineers, and business leaders to tackle the problem is cause for great confidence. More and more private investors are relying on the technology. You can’t afford not to – we can look back on the commercialization of quantum and compare it to the steam engine, electricity, and the internet – all of which have meant profound shifts in the way society approached problems and Created values.
However, it is more difficult than quantum physics to align the US government’s regulatory and funding strategy with technology. Aligning various government agencies to advance an industry while navigating landmines of regulation, Byzantine government contract processes, and the geopolitical realities of both the threats and disruptions from quantum technology will be a much greater challenge than building a quantum computer with millions of qubits.
While this claim may be a slight exaggeration, I have now worked in both worlds and seen them up close. As a former CIA official, I saw myself at the “spearhead” how slowly the government moves when it is left to its own devices. However, I’ve also seen the value it can have when the right influencers in the right positions make tough decisions.
Government can help pave the way for commercialization or bring industry to its knees before it has a chance to run. The US government needs a quantum commercialization strategy in addition to its quantum R&D strategy. We have to get out of the laboratory and into the world. To move the industry forward, the government should:
- Request more funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We can thank DARPA for the internet and GPS. I can imagine that one day we will 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.
- Call on the National Science Foundation (NSF) to buy different types of quantum computers for researchers and students at 20 different universities. The NSF should provide scholarships to physics departments at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and economically disadvantaged schools under the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to increase diversity in the quantum technology industry.
- In the Department of Defense, create a large, well-funded quantum sensor program that goes beyond small-scale research. For example, the Pentagon could fund a $ 200 million program to deploy a quantum positioning system (QPS) that is robust, 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 once. They need significant long-term commitments, especially in an area as hardware-intensive as quantum technology. Otherwise, we will doom physicists and engineers to spend their time writing proposals to apply for future projects to keep the lights on.
The government should also allocate exponentially more funding to the Pentagon’s National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) program. NSIC’s role is to help hardware-centric businesses climb the valley of death with non-dilutive investments. If the government is really serious about this, these investments must be at least $ 5 million and more.
The money that goes into this hardware commercialization will inevitably lead to devices that are used by the average person and other discoveries. The same quantum positioning systems that power submarine navigation can power commercial autonomous vehicles and sensors for smart, greener cities. Smartphones, the Internet, and MRI machines are examples of unintended discoveries. The US taxpayer will recoup their money for long-term value creation even when some businesses inevitably fail or miss their intended goals.
- Despite the important role government plays, it needs to know where to go. The government shouldn’t create additional regulation through export controls until US companies have built a globally dominant quantum capacity. I understand the national security threats we face from new technologies and the US government’s desire to stop rampant IP theft, anti-competitive practices, and the use of these technologies for authoritarian and power projection purposes. But a key element of our national and economic security is our openness. Regulation at this early stage will only hinder and pose a greater threat to our ability to build global quantum enterprises.
The US government needs to inject more money into the commercial sector faster for these emerging technologies. This new era of technology requires us to compete at a pace and scale that the government budgeting process is not currently designed for. Smaller businesses can move fast and we are at a time when speed, not efficiency, is most important in the beginning because we have to scale ahead of our geopolitical competition that is pouring tens of billions of dollars straight into the sector.
When I was with the CIA, I often heard the words “acta non verba” or “did not say words”. In this case, the acts bring money to the table and don’t regulate the industry too early. Not everyone in senior positions in the US government needs to believe in the potential of Quantum. I wouldn’t blame them if they had any doubts – this is really beyond rocket science. But the smart move is to protect yourself. The US government should make such a bet by pushing a commercialization strategy now. At least it shouldn’t get in the way.