Quantum information technologies create value because they fundamentally work differently than classical technologies. Since the days of mechanical adding machines, we have solved problems by encoding logic into mechanical or electronic circuits to solve math problems. In fact, everything a computer does, from displaying this article to mapping your route to dinner, is represented as a math problem. But quantum information technologies work differently. They harness the fundamental properties of atoms to solve problems.
It’s a bit like a soap bubble. Mathematically modeling the formation of a soap bubble turns out to be incredibly challenging. So, does that mean the plastic wands you buy at the dollar store are mathematical geniuses? Of course not. They do not make soap bubbles by solving math equations for bubbles; they use the laws of physics. There are certain problems that are incredibly difficult to solve mathematically, but easy to do with physics.1 And therein lies the power of quantum information technology.
Public sector use of quantum improves lives
This fundamentally different approach to problem-solving gives quantum technologies some unique capabilities.2 Quantum information technology excels at problems where classical computers may be able to verify an answer but have extreme difficulty finding the precise answer from among the billions of other possibilities. With public sector leaders facing such difficult problems every day, quantum information technology is beginning to show real promise to not only solve problems, but to improve people’s lives as well. Pilots and simulations are showing how quantum can help tackle:
- Optimization problems. Schedule all the flights for an airline in such a way that hundreds of planes can take thousands of passengers to their desired destination while using the least amount of fuel. This is exactly the type of easy-to-verify, hard-to-solve optimization problem that quantum computers excel at. But far from being a mathematical curiosity, it is directly applicable to our everyday lives. For example, Groovenauts, a Japan-based company, used quantum-powered machine learning to optimize garbage collection routes in Tokyo. Their pilot showed a significant uptick in efficiency using quantum technology, and even modeled a nearly 60% reduction in carbon emissions.3
- Illuminating hidden features. Whether looking for ancient archeological sites or accurately mapping groundwater, finding hidden features of the earth can help with many public challenges. Quantum sensing such as gravimetry show promise in being able to identify such invisible, but valuable, features.4
- Searching unsorted data. Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack is another great example of an easy-to-verify, hard-to-solve problem. For public sector workers in tax, banking, regulatory, and other fields, finding relevant data can be a daily challenge. Quantum computing paired with classical machine learning has proven itself adept at finding fraudulent transactions from reams of real-world financial data.5
- Simulating complex phenomena. What would happen if….? This can be a simple question when the situation is simple like flipping a coin, but ask about complex systems such as chemical reactions, national transit systems, or nuclear weapons, and very quickly only quantum computers are able to answer. Several start-ups are already beginning to explore quantum computers’ ability to simulate chemistry, physics, and other problems.6
- Producing randomness and security. The physical properties of quantum information technologies go beyond just solving problems. The nondeterministic behavior of quantum particles is perfect for generating random numbers or ensuring communications have not been intruded upon. Public sector institutions in government and higher education are playing an important role in scaling point-to-point entangled quantum communication to a true, secure quantum internet.7
But the largest impact is expected to come from the private sector
As much as public sector organizations can take advantage of the unique capabilities of quantum information technology to improve people’s lives, they only represent a small part of the overall quantum industry. In 2022, US Federal investment in quantum made up less than 9% of the total quantum information technology market, even after nearly doubling from two years prior.8 And the overall industry is growing at a much faster rate of 30.2% CAGR.9 At that rate, when the industry reaches an estimated US$44 billion in 2028, direct public spending would be an even smaller part of the market.
This is actually good news for the public. A self-sustaining market for quantum technology not driven by government spending is likely to create more innovations that can transform the economy and improve lives. This is much like how the government helped propel the development of the early internet until academic and, later, commercial entities picked it up to create useful new tools—maybe hamster dance notwithstanding.
But this also creates a predicament for government. If commercial companies are likely to make a big impact on the economy and national security, then achieving the greatest transformation possible will take more than just government agencies exploring how to use quantum. It will take helping the entire quantum industry to grow naturally. To support that growth, governments need to think like a gardener. Gardeners understand which nutrients and weeds affect their plants, and, in the same vein, governments need to understand the needs and challenges faced by the quantum industry.
The development of quantum needs support
The best way to understand what conditions would make the garden of the quantum industry flourish is to identify the risks that inhibit growth.
- Market risk. Even as technology advances, the niche nature of today’s quantum market is a risk for many companies. The limited number of current buyers for quantum products and services can deter providers from entering the market. Similarly, the small number of providers may deter customers from exploring quantum solutions, creating a negative feedback cycle that can inhibit growth.
- Technical risk. There are several risks that can deter companies and governments alike from pursuing quantum solutions, but perhaps the most well-known are the technical risks. Whether for computing, communication, or sensing, quantum information technologies rely on entangled particles. This entanglement is so sensitive that even the slightest outside forces can cause the relationship to decohere. As a result, quantum technologies need to be kept incredibly cold and isolated from the outside world. This makes scaling quantum technologies technically difficult. This is akin to trying to keep a toddler sitting still: It is difficult, but possible, when dealing with one or two toddlers, but trying to keep a whole classroom still for even a short period is just about impossible.
- Risk from uncertainties. But perhaps the most significant risk to the development of quantum information technologies are uncertainties around regulation, workforce, and general knowledge. To begin with, export controls and trade regulations can limit what companies can develop or who they can take money from.10 And concerns about the availability of skilled talent can constrain companies’ ability to scale. However, the largest uncertainty may be within peoples’ minds. Uncertainty about what quantum can really do and what problems it can solve for an organization can stall interest, buying, and workforce growth, reinforcing all the other risks named above. Simone Severini, director of quantum for Amazon Web Services, describes the challenge this way: “The bottleneck is really in the whiteboard work that needs to be done in the mathematics of adopting a specific problem, to match what has been done so far, with the real-world problems they can solve. So, it is important to educate people.”11
How governments can help
The future of quantum is a good-news bad-news story. The good news is that quantum’s unique capabilities can revolutionize the economy, improve national security, and impact the lives of regular people. The bad news is that the significant risks above can seriously impede progress toward that promised future, or even worse, allow an adversarial nation to wield quantum dominance as a cudgel against other nations.
Therefore, to both achieve the maximum benefit for their citizens and keep the development of quantum free and fair, governments need to help reduce those risks and allow the quantum industry to flourish. The varied nature of these risks means that governments will have to do more than simply give research grants or explore their own uses of quantum. Rather, governments should use their roles as buyer, regulator, and even infrastructure provider, to encourage the growth of the quantum future that their citizens desire.
Government as buyer can help reduce market risk
Hesitance among both quantum companies and buyers can create a negative feedback loop, stalling the progress of both. Government can play a key role in breaking that negative cycle and sparking natural market growth. This is exactly what happened in emerging industries such as early satellite communication or commercial space launch. In those and other industries, government stepped in with guaranteed purchases to create the foundation of a market and lessen the risk of continued investment by companies.12
Similar policies could help spark natural market growth in quantum. There are already several use cases where governments are sending steady demand signals to industry. Defense and energy departments in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere are investigating quantum sensing for precision navigation and quantum computing for simulating nuclear weapons.13
Beyond these immediate purchases, there are several other tools governments could use to lessen market risk. For example, guaranteed purchases of quantum computers to be placed at research universities could have a compounding effect. It could not only stimulate the market for quantum computers, but spark research that could further drive development.14 For solutions closer to commercialization, dedicated small purchases could help bridge the “valley of death” while loan guarantees could help companies scale production.
Government as a guaranteed purchaser can also help spur the long-term development of a thriving quantum industry. While it is easy to think of quantum information technologies as single solutions, they are actually part of a larger technology architecture. In fact, the technical difficulty of quantum means that most users are not likely to build their own quantum computers or communication devices. Rather, they are likely to tie into a small number of quantum-as-a-service providers via existing classical technology such as cloud. This means that quantum is just one of a number of technologies that are needed to solve real world problems. As Simone Severini describes it: “I strongly believe that quantum is a cloud-first technology. Quantum computers are temperamental, require a lot of calibration and maintenance, and are typically built for a single purpose. So, I don’t see companies building their own when they could tap into those maintained by others.”15
Seeing quantum not as a stand-alone solution, but as part of a broader tech stack makes the interfaces between technologies—especially between quantum and classical technologies—critical to success. By offering a guaranteed market for solutions that connect different technologies, government can help nurture several different types of solutions, allowing the market to naturally select the best as standards moving forward.16 The National Institute of Standards and Technology is already following a similar path as it works to set standards for postquantum encryption.17 Taking a similar approach in other areas from quantum compilers to quantum internet standards, government could help speed the development not just of quantum tools, but of a whole ecosystem of solutions.
Government as infrastructure provider can reduce technical risk
It may sound odd, but humans could be the solution to the technical risk of cutting-edge quantum developments. Making quantum information technologies more reliable and accessible will likely need new technical discoveries, and every single one of those discoveries will be made by a human. Therefore, creating a large, diverse, and educated workforce could be key to lessening technical risk and spurring further innovation in quantum.
Here government’s role as infrastructure provider can be key. Government providing infrastructure in the form of interstate highways, wireless spectrum, air traffic control, and much more has allowed the development of any number of industries. But the infrastructure needed for quantum is intellectual infrastructure. Public sector organizations, such as government agencies and universities, should help create the courses, educational content, and upskilling programs that the quantum industry needs.
For example, general open-access and online courseware could help leaders in any industry become more familiar with quantum and how it might apply to their organization’s unique challenges. That sort of “whiteboard work” matching capabilities with problems can help create the foundations for a self-sustaining market for quantum information technologies.
That market, in turn, will likely need an ever-growing number of skilled workers. With quantum existing at a unique intersection of physics, engineering, and computer science, this can be difficult. Government and university leaders should promote quantum to help nurture expertise among university graduates. At the primary school level, leaders should encourage exposure to quantum topics at an early age where it intersects existing lessons in math, science, or history to create interest in the field among students.
These educational programs can help provide the basis for more specialized workforce development programs. Having a larger body of workers at least exposed to quantum concepts at different stages in their education can create a prime pool of talent for upskilling programs into the specific manufacturing, programming, maintenance, or other fields needed by employers.
Government as regulator can help reduce uncertainty risk
Countries around the world are flooding investment into quantum. Five nations have already invested more than US$1 billion each into quantum research with India, Canada, the United States, and Germany all dwarfed by China’s more than US$10 billion investment.18 Ironically, this investment itself is leading to uncertainty risk. That is because it places quantum in the frame of larger geopolitical tensions around the control of emerging technologies.19
A dense network of often opaque regulations can limit what founders and researchers can do. Very real fears of intellectual property (IP) theft and industrial espionage drive several requirements for export controls, investment screenings, and collaboration restrictions.20 Even when these do not directly preclude collaboration, fear of running afoul of them or uncertainty around their future direction can hamper progress.
This leaves government leaders with a dilemma: How can they protect national security and IP without stalling technical progress? There is no single answer to how to strike this balance, but greater clarity in regulation will certainly help. In fact, enshrining key ethical principles throughout the research, development, and commercialization processes can help protect national interests while still allowing for international collaboration. This is similar to what the Department of Defense has done with its Responsible AI strategy. By creating controls built on ethical principles throughout the AI development process, leaders can be sure that data is protected and outcomes assured even while organizations collaborate with others.21
Crafting a similar strategy for ethical quantum could help researchers pursue collaborations and companies seek investments, all while helping to ensure that those relationships are in the collective best interest.
Sensing the future starts today
The promise of quantum can be a bit like staring at the sun: It is clearly there and powerful but getting a focused view of it can be difficult. Public sector leaders should focus on the powerful and transformational opportunity quantum offers rather than the lack of clarity around precisely what that future may look like.
By sensing the opportunity of quantum, public sector leaders can help identify and reduce the risks standing in the way of a quantum-enabled future, even as the specifics of that future change over time. While this sounds like a large undertaking, a few small steps can help leaders get started today:
- Give it a try. While many nations have already adopted a national quantum strategy, individual agencies and universities should begin looking to pilot quantum technologies on a small scale. By trying the technology in lower-risk environments, public sector organizations can build familiarity, learn needed skills, and make valuable connections that can help them accelerate the impact of quantum more broadly.
- Build the workforce. Experimenting with quantum solutions has the added benefit of beginning to build the quantum workforce within the public sector. Training is important, but real-world experience using the technology to solve mission problems can be invaluable. Public sector organizations should also participate in forums, partnerships, and talent exchanges that bring together quantum and public sector expertise. Not only can these connections introduce public organizations to new uses of quantum, but they can also help leaders identify where government can use its tools to reduce risk for the whole industry.
- Manage a portfolio of bets. Quantum is not a point solution; it requires an ecosystem of technologies to make it work. Therefore, cultivating a quantum industry requires taking a portfolio approach. Quantum Delta in the Netherlands is one example of this approach. By creating collaboration hubs across the country, Quantum Delta is bringing together academia, industry, government, and civil society to help create a portfolio of not just technical solutions, but also the human capital and infrastructure thought to be needed so quantum can have a positive impact on society.22
- Coordinate to stay flexible. Finally, the science, engineering, and business of quantum is changing so quickly that it is unlikely that any solution put forward today will still be the best option in even a few years. As a result, leadership should actively coordinate with other agencies so that investments, skill-building, and proofs of concept are additive and not duplicative. That way, when technology is ready to scale, the entire public sector, not just one or two agencies, can be ready.
The future of quantum may be hazy, but if an internet that created Hamster Dance could also power massive leaps in customer service, AI, vaccine development, and so much more, imagine how quantum could touch our lives in the near future.