Uncertainty is the heart of quantum information sciences. Drawn from 20th century work in quantum mechanics, computer science and cryptography, quantum information science promises better and more secure computing, but the exact nature of the benefits will have to be sussed out through scientific research and then refined into technology.
In anticipation of some great benefit from this work, earlier this month the National Science and Technology Council released a grand strategy for how the United States. It is an inherently strange document, a draft of the future posture written in the sterile and analytical language of the strategy form, all hinged around a science whose future benefits remain unknown.
“Significant uncertainty remains regarding the overall economic and national security impact of QIS research and development,” reads the fourth item in the strategy’s section on challenges. “With strong industrial engagement now beginning, it is crucial to maintain a culture of discovery. The likely best-use commercial cases of quantum devices are unknown at this time and must be found through research.”
While the specifics are unknown, the strategy sets out a few fields in which the government can expect to see some valuable returns from investment. These fields include new sensors for biotechnology and defense, as well as next-generation positioning, navigation, and timing systems for military and commercial applications.
But this is not a roadmap without a compass.
The strategy suggests one more concrete outcome from funding research into quantum information science could be “single-photon detectors” that “may become possible at far infrared and microwave wavelengths to expand the range of discovery of the dark universe, while non-classical emitters could be integrated for sensing, communication, and computing systems at room temperature.”
The way to discover these mysteries of the universe, and then bend them to national security ends, are fairly straightforward. The path offered by the strategy is mostly funding and coordinating scientific research, rather than iterating existing technology, and then identifying Grand Challenges to guide future research.
Research gets nowhere without researchers, and the strategy notes that it is harder to develop pipelines for multidisciplinary fields, such as quantum information science, than it is for more clear-cut paths. The “how” outlined involved everything from civil society groups to companies sharing resources via the cloud to existing fellowship programs.
With the people and goals in mind, the strategy wants to set up infrastructure to make sure it all works. Again, the strategy sets a goal of finding what the needs are and building to them, which means the needs are either unknown or unknowable at this time, both weird factors to plan resource coordination around.
There are specifics to glean and future research to infer from the strategy, though taken altogether the document feels as much about not wanting to miss out on future technology as it is about actively guiding the development.
It’s fair to note why quantum information science can both enable a secure mesh communication network and why it threatens existing cryptography, and in both cases to talk about how the United States plans to manage that risk and potential.
Still, whatever the future holds, there is money in charting out the course. It may not yet have the draw of machine learning, AI, or the blockchain, but it’s not hard to imagine a future where “incorporating quantum information science” carries the same kind of buzz, and attracts the same kinds of federal dollars.
Adjust slide decks accordingly.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.