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How Federal Investment in Quantum Affects State, Local Gov

Experts in quantum computing say the federal government’s continued support of the emerging technology will have implications for state and local government entities, particularly as it applies to economic development.

The IBM Q System One quantum computer
The federal government continues to invest in the research and development of quantum computing, and now the time is nearing when state and local governments will have a role to play with the new tech as well, experts say.

To put it mildly, quantum computing is a major emerging technology, one that physicists and other thinkers have seen coming for decades. Recently, however, the acceleration of other technologies has brought society far closer to harnessing the power of quantum, which can be used to solve complex problems far faster than traditional computing is able to do so. As such, in the past five years the federal government has sunk money into quantum, wanting American companies and researchers to keep pace with or get ahead of their counterparts in other countries.

This is all a fairly standard trajectory in the usual cycle for emerging technologies — albeit one that feels a bit more high stakes given quantum’s enormous potential to facilitate sweeping systems change. In fact, George Thomas of the regional Potomac Quantum Innovation Center called the leap from traditional computing to quantum computing greater than the leap between traditional computing and the abacus. In short, it’s significant.

The continued support of and progress for quantum computing at the federal level now means it has come time for other levels of government to prepare for the new tech. So much so that some state governments are already laying groundwork for quantum computing, particularly in the area of economic development.

Indeed, a handful of states — California, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia among them — are preparing for a quantum future, doing so by trying to ensure their region can be part of the market for companies researching and ultimately selling the technology. This, experts say, can position states and the cities within them to benefit from quantum economically, bringing tax revenue and new jobs to the jurisdictions.

What those in the tech and innovation space within those governments should first and foremost be aware of is that quantum has now moved from the theoretical to the practical side of science, said Robert Liscouski, CEO of Quantum Computing, Inc., one of the many new companies in the quantum applications space.

Liscouski said this will eventually lead to great impacts in everyday life in the United States, although not immediately.

Some areas of interest for government within that include cybersecurity — quantum computing methods are situated to essentially obliterate traditional cryptography — as well as more mundane and grounded problem-solving activities, such as a local government computing the most efficient possible routes for snowplows. The reason being that quantum computing’s advance speed means it provides a range of potential answers, not just one, giving it the potential to improve supply chain challenges, logistics, scheduling and more.

“You won’t have to buy a quantum computer to get access to it,” Liscouski said. “Quantum computing is going to be a cloud-based solution. That’s what Amazon is betting on.”

Indeed, Amazon is right there with the federal government in terms of the investments its making in the quantum industry, working to provide access to quantum computing via the cloud. Add this to a bipartisan investment in quantum in Washington — the Trump administration put roughly $2 billion into private quantum research while also starting a National Quantum Initiative, while Biden has demonstrated a similar commitment via support of legislation that would invest more than $100 billion in advancing a group of emerging technologies that includes quantum — and what you get is rapid growth conditions for the technology in this country.

Celia Merzbacher is the executive director for the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, which includes more than 150 member groups from across the private sector, government and academia, and its creation was called for within the Trump administration’s actions on quantum in 2018.

When Merzbacher first went into her office to do this work, she said she used to keep a map on the wall, where she would put a pin for every group that joined the consortium, and what she has seen is the slow emergence of clusters in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Chicago and parts of Colorado.

“It’s still a very early stage technology,” Merzbacher said. “It’s behind AI. When you talk about where are the jobs and when will they be here? Right now, most of the jobs — frankly — are in research.”

This early stage status also means it so far remains unclear exactly how quantum will develop, how it will be connected with users and the exact ways lower-level government agencies will interact with quantum.

Still, the excitement around the potential for quantum — both in helping government become more efficient and in bolstering local economies — is growing, and it’s something that bears attention from state and local leadership.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.