Government hikes spending on quantum computing

Washington -- Preparing for an eventual post-silicon-chip world, the U.S. is hiking its research spending on quantum computers and other advanced computing alternatives. But foreign governments are doing likewise, and a race to develop new technologies -- potentially raising profound implications for computer security -- may be beginning.

An award of $90 million in grants for technology-related research by the National Science Foundation (NSF) last week included as much as $8 million for quantum computing, which relies on the behavior of subatomic particles that theoretically could increase processing power exponentially.

The quantum computing research grants are part of a new "revolutionary computing" research effort the NSF is funding. Five years ago, overall federal support for quantum computing was just $1 million per year. The annual spending figure is now at $30 million, according to the NSF.

The interest in quantum computing is being spurred, in part, by technical limits in existing chip-making material and fabrication equipment that ultimately could nullify Moore's Law, the famous 1965 prediction by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore that computing power would double every 18 months. Most experts say those limits won't be reached for another 10 to 20 years. But when they do arrive, it "will get more difficult just to make [microprocessors] smaller and faster in the old ways," said Charles Bennet, a research scientist at IBM.

But the creation of new technologies such as quantum computing will take an enormous basic research effort, Bennet testified during a hearing held here by the House Subcommittee on Basic Research last week. This is a "period of time of exceptional need for ingenuity and basic science because the thirst for progress and for better computational informational processing ability will not dry up," he said.

At the hearing, scientists urged more investment in these areas. Japan is investing about half of what the U.S. is spending on quantum computing, scientists noted. They added that other Asian nations, as well as Australia and European countries, also are funding research into the technology.

"We are not unquestionably the world's leaders" in quantum computing research, warned Timothy Havel, a lecturer on biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. The research efforts in other countries "leaves open the room for a little serendipity" that could enable them to make a breakthrough first, Havel said, adding that unpredictable discoveries play "a very important role in science."

In quantum computing, a single subatomic particle could represent both a zero and a one, a simultaneous state that may make huge increases in processing power possible. There also are some national security implications to the technology: As envisioned, quantum computing will have enormous abilities to factor numbers and potentially to break codes.

National security and the secure functioning of e-commerce transactions are both "dependent on the fact that certain codes work," said Richard Lipton, a Princeton University computer science professor who's currently on leave to work at the Georgia Institute of Technology. But that could be jeopardized if another country "secretly discovered a way to build a quantum computer and just didn't tell us," he told the House. "They would be reading all our mail, reading all probably the military's mail and the like -- this would probably not be good," he told the House subcommittee.

Research interest in the U.S. is growing, but funding remains limited. The NSF was only able to fund 12% of the proposals it received in new areas of computing, said Ruzena Bajcsy, assistant director for computer and information science and engineering at the NSF. "There is more interest and [research] capacity," she said. "We just didn't have enough funding."

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