Senators Schooled on Promise of Quantum Science

WASHINGTON (CN) – Quantum science, which studies how the smallest components inside atoms react when stimulated, could lead to technologies that render complex issues from climate change to curing cancer imminently solvable, scientists told lawmakers at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

At the hearing hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, lawmakers heard testimony from scientists Irfan Siddiqi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and Supratik Guha of the Argonne National Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Paul Dabbar, under secretary for science at the Department of Energy and Todd Holmdahl, vice president of quantum at Microsoft, also testified, throwing their support behind Siddiqi’s and Guha’s statements: the future of quantum information science is now and the global race to dominate emerging technologies is well underway.

In testimony which often elicited murmurs of amazement from lawmakers, Siddiqi said the advancement of quantum-based computers could help scientists embark on uncharted territory inside natural processes like photosynthesis, or the conversion of light into energy.

“We have to understand how this transference happens in an optimal recipe,” he said.

Quantum computers, which can outpace classical computer calculation and analysis exponentially, could replicate the recipe behind photosynthesis in a way that reveals critical discoveries and optimizes humanity’s ability to tamp down on things like greenhouse gas emissions.

With quantum technology, artificial fertilizer, Siddiqi and Holmdahl said, could be produced cleaner, faster and less harmful to the atmosphere than it has been in the 100 years since it was first produced.

“We believe a quantum computer can figure out the secrets of what microbes are doing so we can produce the same exact type of fertilizer at much lower energy and much lower costs,” Holmdahl said.

Even legumes growing in his garden, Siddiqi said, naturally catalyze energy in a way that “is beyond anything classical computing can do at this moment.”

If a quantum computer can simulate that process perfectly, then human beings could understand – and harness – the acceleration of chemical reaction by stimuli in a way that has never been achieved before.

On Monday, the Department of Energy unveiled a $218 million grant program for quantum technology. 85 grants will be dispersed to scientists at 28 universities and nine Department of Energy laboratories. Next year, the department will invest another $100 million.

That total is just a small fraction of what other nations have invested into studying quantum.

China has poured $10 billion into quantum study for medical, technological and other scientific uses.

According to the panelists, China is just five years away from developing the first full scale quantum computer.

“The time to expand this effort [in the U.S.] is now because this technology will offer differentiating advantages to whoever is the leader,” Supratik Guha said.

Microsoft’s labs have  lured physics and engineering students from all over the world to study quantum in the U.S., Holmdahl said.

Guha and Siddiqi agreed but noted that domestic investment up front is only as good as what is waiting for these scientists in the U.S. once they have completed their studies.

“There is a need for a quantum trained workforce,” Guha said. “Most people involved come with physics, chemistry and material sciences backgrounds but we need to include people like electrical or packaging engineers. The ecosystem must be expanded.”

U.S. national laboratories are among the strongest in the world today, he added, but other countries like China and those in the E.U. could eventually outpace America.

But Dabbar is still encouraged. Following a recent tour of universities like CalTech, Stamford and University of Chicago, he’s seen a “rush of interest” to quantum studies by students.

Students aren’t only interested in advancing quantum mechanics or computers, but are keen on discovering more about quantum sensing, he said.

Quantum sensing detects magnetic fields at the individual cellular level and could one day help scientists map and target each individual cell inside a human being, “leading to jumps in medicine, like individual cancer cell targeting,” he said.

Sen. Maizie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Siddiqi if he believed quantum computers could benefit vulnerable infrastructure and security systems in the U.S.

“Would it prevent things like cyber attacks?” she said.

It could, Siddiqi said.

“In quantum mechanics, the fundamental principle is different than classical physics. If someone copies your credit card number you wouldn’t know until they use it,” he explained, noting data is delivered on classical computers sequentially.

Quantum mechanics aren’t sequential.

Instead, information from multiple origin points is computed at once and calculated immediately.

“If someone copied your credit card number you could know instantaneously,” Siddiqi said.

A quantum-secured internet also lies ahead, Guha said.

“You would be guaranteed secure communication. If you send data and someone was eavesdropping on it, you would know immediately,” he said. “It would be fail safe.”

When will quantum internet become a reality?

Unwilling to consult his “crystal ball,” Guha said specific purpose only – not broad usage – quantum internet is close.

“That type of technology is only a few years away from being seen across the world,” he said.

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