U.S. Consortium Pulls Ecosystem Into Quantum

Through QED-C, the U.S. government helps build industry support behind quantum computing.


Quantum computing promises to solve impossibly complex problems that no classical computer could solve, and do it in a humanly reasonable amount of time. The hitch is that quantum computers are still in the early development phase. Whether these computers can fulfill that promise is not yet known.

Despite the uncertainty, no one wants to be left behind. That includes governments, which are worried about the possibility of hacking even the most secure ciphers, as well as academic institutions. It also includes corporations looking to develop new materials, as well as hardware and software companies, their supply chains and various trade organizations.

The U.S. government is fostering the idea of quantum computing as a nascent industry on a typical technology trajectory—one that the U.S. wants to dominate. The National Quantum Initiative Act became law in December 2018, but even before that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the nonprofit SRI International (Menlo Park, California) to run a U.S. consortium that will help jump start the U.S. quantum computing industry.

That group, called the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QEDC or QED-C), consists of public and private entities with interest in building the U.S. quantum industry. The group is helping to identify markets and use cases, encourage and engage in research, and establish metrics, standards and a workforce for quantum. Governmental agencies supporting the effort include NIST, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Energy (DoE).

Getting an early edge in quantum computing is seen as a national security issue, as a fully working quantum computer in theory could easily crack any encryption. With countries such as China and Russia striving for quantum computers, support for the U.S. quantum computing industry sailed through Congress with bipartisan support. For fiscal year 2020, the proposed U.S. R&D funding for quantum is $430 million, which will be spread across NIST, NSF, DoE and DoD. Up to 10 research centers will be established competitively in the U.S., run by NSF and DoE.

QED-C membership is now open to industry, academia, and governmental agencies. Its list of members already is robust, with more than 60 entities, including Amazon, Google, ARM, AT&T, Boeing, Citi, IBM, Intel, Keysight, KLA, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Microchip/Microsemi. SEMI supported the QED-C at the recent SEMICON West conference with press lunches, a two-hour tech talk and a show-and-tell of IBM’s Q quantum computer.

Fig. 1: IBM’s Q quantum computer. Anyone can use that computer through the cloud. IBM has an open-source software framework to help adapt quantum processing for business and science applications. Other quantum computers are available through Google. Photo credit: Susan Rambo/Semiconductor Engineering

The first kludged integrated circuits are analog, but quantum computing appears to be on the path to becoming something useful, according to numerous experts and researchers. The hope is this experimental computing, which harnesses quantum mechanical properties to quickly calculate solutions to large, complex problems, will follow a route similar to the semiconductor industry.

The QED-C’s function is to help propel quantum into the mainstream. Government will support basic R&D on the front end, while the industry will build a supply chain and ensure manufacturability, testing and evaluation. But industry’s involvement begins a few steps down the line, after the technology matures a bit.

“In the middle is what’s often called the Valley of Death,” said Celia Merzbacher, associate director at QED-C. “This space is where you’re trying to take things from the discovery phase to a prototype and something that can be made into a product, where you’re doing prototyping and proving that something is really potentially valuable. And that’s where the QED-C is being positioned.”

Fig. 2: The Valley of Death in the quantum R&D continuum is the pink arrow, which is where QED-C is concentrating its efforts. Source: QED-C/SRI International

The supply chain, therefore, is a big focus for QED-C. Enabling technologies still need to be developed, which is part of why QED-C had a presence at the SEMICON West/ES Design West, a show that brings together semiconductor industry design, test and supply chain. Up until now, quantum systems have been cobbled together. “For a typical quantum development today—say a five-year development—the first three years are spent looking for equipment to make it fit for purpose,” said Joseph Broz, executive director for QED-C and vice president of applied sciences at SRI International. “To create some sort of quantum device, you spend a year taking the data and a year figuring out what the data means, and that’s just not sustainable. We need to shrink that initial three years to three months.”

The QED-C wants the supply chain to know that now is the time to jump into quantum computing race. Part of being at its mission at the recent SEMICON West was to spread the word, spread quantum information science, and enable the supply chain.

“Quantum devices now have really solidly moved from technical advantage to an engineering practicality,” said Broz. “In the areas of sensing, communication and computation, the promise and opportunity that exists now with noisy intermediate-scale quantum devices is just outstanding.” Broz pointed out that IBM displayed its 20-qubit machine the conference. “To scale that to commercial level is exactly what this consortium is about.”

The key is to ramp up all of the enabling technologies. “That includes the lithography, the planarization, the etching—all of the different processes that are in represented by these companies out here,” he said. “Ensuring scalability and affordability are two very important points as to what has to happen next.”

Quantum leaping
The market associated with quantum computing will grow in three phases, said QED-C representatives, using numbers from Boston Consulting Group. The first phase, which will occur over the next five years, will generate $2 billion to $5 billion operating income during the next five years. That is considered the noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) phase, in which the error mitigation will be the big hurdle to solve.

Operating income will rise to $25 billion to $50 billion in approximately 10 years, during which errors will still be a focus. And the market will will hit $450 billion to $850 billion in approximately 20 years, when full-scale fault-tolerance and modular architectures will be available. Communications and quantum sensing are both use cases that may each bring in $1.6 billion annually by 2025, according to Inside Quantum Technology.

Fig. 3: Timing of quantum key distribution (QKD) and quantum sensing markets. Source: Inside Quantum TEchnology/QED-C/SRI International

“Quantum will accelerate and improve all the technologies around sensing, communications, and computing. So it represents a great potential. But at the same time, it also represents a great risk,” said Yianni Gamvros, head of business development at QC Ware, which writes algorithms for quantum computing.

“Quantum is here, quantum is now. It’s not a future. It looks futuristic, but it’s very much upon us,” said Broz. Scaling quantum computers to a commercial level “is exactly what this consortium is about.” And like many others, he believes existing the semiconductor supply chain also will profit handsomely from this technology.

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