FutureStructure

Editorial: Federal Legislation Could Push Quantum Computing Forward, Changing Computing Forever

Quantum computing will upend the way the world uses the Internet.

by The Dallas Morning News / August 7, 2018
The IBM Q quantum computer. IBM

(TNS) — On university campuses across the country, scientists and engineers are scrambling to develop a radically new kind of computing — and computers — that experts say will revolutionize online communications, encryption and search.

We're delighted to see that they could get a powerful boost from the U.S. government, thanks to welcome and bipartisan legislation advancing in Congress that would make the research a national priority.

The new field is called quantum information science, or quantum computing, and it really is that important. As one congressional staffer told us this week, "We try not to think of it as just faster computing. This is going to allow us to solve problems we never thought computers could solve."

Just how it will do that is complicated, as it involves the marriage of information science and quantum mechanics, and some of the oldest puzzles in theoretical physics. We'll dive into the details further below. But for now, trust us when we say the work will likely upend the way the world uses the Internet for tasks as routine as sending an email or making a purchase, or as complex as the national security-level encryption that keeps the nation's secrets secret.

To cite just one example, an encryption that would take a super computer days to crack could, as so-called quantum computers come online, take a matter of seconds. That has implications for everything from the efficacy of Google's search algorithms to your online bank accounts and password-protected emails to the secrets kept by the National Security Agency.

The breakthrough has to do with the way computers manipulate information. The smallest unit of information read by a conventional computer is a binary digit, or a bit. These bits are binary, meaning they signal either 1 or 0. Even such simple markers, when enough are strung together, can give computers incredibly complex directions.

But quantum computers use quantum digits, or qubits. Just as quantum physics has theorized that some subatomic particles are both present and not present at the same time, these qubits can be both 1 and 0 simultaneously. It can mean the difference between instructing a computer to give one answer 10,000 times, or writing one set of instructions to provide 10,000 answers.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives science committee unanimously advanced a bill that would instruct the administration to create 10 federal research centers aimed at speeding up development of quantum computers and related technology. The bill was shepherded by two Texans who lead the panel: chairman Lamar Smith of San Antonio and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. The U.S. Senate is working on a similar bill.

We're delighted that Congress and the White House are prioritizing this work, especially given reports that China and other nations are already ahead in their own quest to bring quantum from theory to widespread use.

It's far too soon to know where those 10 research centers will be, but we're pleased to discover that some of the most advanced work in the nation is already being done at Texas universities — including right here in Dallas. At Southern Methodist University, professor Mitch Thornton leads a team already developing ways of writing software for IBM's experimental quantum computer, one of a handful of such machines in existence.

It's not often the White House and both parties in Congress can come together on a national priority. But that's precisely what it takes for big wins in Washington. And this one could have positive impacts for generations.

©2018 The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.