The Arrow of Time is a theory from physicist Arthur Eddington describing how time moves forward and what will change. And we can say with confidence that humanity and America are at a special point in time, due to where we are on the prospects for innovation across a wide set of areas.
One critical area of innovation is in quantum information technologies. Late last month, Google announced it achieved Quantum Supremacy in computing. A team led by John Martinis from Google and the University of California, Santa Barbara, used a 53 qubit quantum computer to solve a mathematical problem in just three minutes that would take the fastest current computer 10,000 years to calculate. This small, profound step is the tip of the spear for a new technology.
This discovery is a critical turning point for quantum computing. It calls for us to continue our efforts in research & development across the federal science and technology enterprise. It calls for us to continue and expand our international collaborations in this field as well. Investment by the federal government, academia and industry into cutting edge innovation, in concert with the entrepreneurial culture of researchers and business, makes for a potent combination.
Quantum computers are still an early-stage technology, but they promise to someday allow us to perform some calculations exponentially faster than today’s most advanced supercomputers. Although we’re still a long way off from quantum computers being broadly and routinely available, quantum computers will one day revolutionize how we overcome the challenges we face today.
Just as the invention of the transistor led us to personal computers, this development starts us on the road for amazing jumps in technological innovation. The Department of Energy (DOE) is already looking to build quantum networks in Chicago in support of the National Quantum Initiative signed into law last year by President Trump.
The development of quantum systems, and the algorithms and software needed to use them for the many promising applications already envisioned, is an active area of research at DOE and other federal agencies. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which houses DOE’s the world’s fastest supercomputer, Summit, helped the Google team demonstrate that their algorithm, specially designed to demonstrate supremacy, could complete its calculations in mere seconds. Summit required hours of execution time to complete the same calculations when the algorithm was not used.
Work continues across the DOE complex to advance quantum information systems (QIS). A number of DOE’s 17 National Laboratories are researching QIS technology, including quantum sensors, and developing techniques for data analysis. Our researchers are hard at work developing and implementing sensors and atom trapping devices that could be useful in advancing QIS technology. DOE user facilities like the Nanoscale Science Research Centers provide not only expertise and instrumentation for quantum R&D, but offer opportunities for synergies across the lab complex and entire scientific community.
In the private sector, Google is just one of the companies making substantial progress on quantum. Others like IBM are developing their own cutting-edge quantum computing systems, and we should encourage all of them to continue testing these devices to see what they are capable of and what scientific opportunities they present. By working together we will truly push the boundaries of what is possible in computing.
The country called on us to invest in the future and we answered, with historic results for innovation. The Arrow of Time is pointing toward an exciting future.
Paul Dabbar is Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy.