April 15, 2024

DoD Takes Long-Term View of Quantum Computing

Given the large sums tied to expensive weapons systems (think more than $100 million per F-35 fighter), it’s easy to forget that the US Department of Defense is a tightwad at heart. Speaking at the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QEDC) annual meeting last week, the Department of Defense’s top director of quantum research, John Burke, reminded attendees: “After the military pays for the fuel, the “People’s food and ammunition, there is not much money left for new technology. Therefore, it has to be very economical.”

This perspective governs the Department of Defense’s efforts in quantum information sciences.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Defense is interested in all QIS, including quantum computers, although post-quantum cryptography and quantum sensors are perhaps higher current priorities. Questions about the cost of quantum computing, the young stage of the technology and about the Department of Defense’s well-defined missions are moderating the Department of Defense’s rush toward quantum computing.

Burke, senior director of quantum science at the Department of Defense, discussed the Department of Defense’s QIS efforts at the QEDC meeting, drawing a tight line between recognition of its potential and caution with its readiness and cost. For the Department of Defense, the bottom line on quantum computing appears to be that we’re not there yet, although it encouraged QEDC members and the industry at large to keep pushing and take advantage of a growing number of industry outreach efforts. under the Department of Defense.

The slides below broadly show DoD’s quality assurance thinking.

Burke’s brief comments made clear that the Department of Defense is watching closely, but not jumping into quantum computing with both feet. “As many have noted, our strategy right now is to wait and see. It seems like we need to move to something a little more proactive to understand what the implications of quantum computing are,” he said.

John Burke, senior director of quantum science at the Department of Defense. Credit: US Army photo by Leonard Fitzgerald.

To be sure, Burke didn’t share all of the DoD’s quantum R&D activities, but it was interesting that at the beginning of his comments he highlighted a “caveat.”

“Early in my career I worked to try to develop new clocks for GPS satellites. [and] I want to tell you a little anecdote that was a warning. GPS, as I have already highlighted, has had an enormous economic impact. [A] A study from quite a few years ago (10) estimated around 227 billion euros in global GPS-based revenue, and the US estimate was around 56 billion dollars a year. That’s a huge impact. But it is based on quantum technology: these atomic clocks, but the value (cost) of those atomic clocks is very low. So the Department of Defense is paying something like $10 million a year for that activity.[and] The influence there is enormous,” he said.

“[Here’s] the anecdote The chip-scale atomic clock (CSAC), I would say, is possibly one of the most successful new quantum technologies of this century. That started in 2000 and here we are in 2023, and we’re still working on it 23 years later. Why do we do that when the technology itself was developed many decades ago? [it’s because] the cost of building them at the commodity level required by the Department of Defense simply isn’t there. The chip-scale atomic clock costs something like a couple thousand dollars each. The original reason why DARPA developed this watch, through several companies, [was] because it has to be more like about $100 [for] Defense Department”.

It turns out that the work Burke was referring to was funded by the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with the goal of developing a microchip-sized atomic clock for use in portable equipment. “In military equipment [was] It is expected to provide better location and battlespace situational awareness for dismounted soldiers when the global positioning system is not available, but many civilian applications are also envisioned. Commercial manufacturing of these atomic clocks began in 2011. The CSAC, the world’s smallest atomic clock, measures 4 x 3.5 x 1 cm (1.5 x 1.4 x 0.4 in), weighs 35 grams, It consumes only 115 mW of power and can maintain time within 100 microseconds per day after several years of operation. NIST demonstrated in 2019 a more stable design based on the vibration of rubidium atoms. The new design has not yet been marketed.”[i]

Burke noted: “There is a misconception that I often see among specialists [of having] a huge impact, and that’s true with quantum computers, for example, [they expect] a big impact in a big market, but the value proposition is not so clear. [At DoD] We need to pay more attention in making that assessment of what the value proposition is within the Department of Defense. That means different things than it would for the industry. And I’m focused on that.

“So, talking about quantum computing, we have this dichotomy of progress [hardware, etc.] being done. There are many applications available. But there are gaps between the two. Our current assessment is that there is a large gap between current capability and the value they could produce. “We have been working on fundamental quantum computing research for quite some time, since the mid-90s, if not before,” he said.

At this stage, Burke said, the Department of Defense is looking to leverage more of the industry.

“We have new programs. DARPA ONISQ (Optimization with Intermediate-Scale Noisy Quantum Devices), DARPA US2QC (Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing), and Quantum Benchmarking are three programs that are currently active. We have added Microelectronics Commons (prototyping) to the centers as a boost to the industry base. And there are actually some earmarks this year, we’re waiting for Congress to decide what to do with them to kick off even more activity, some of which was also focused on the faces of the industry.

“However, these three DARPA programs have really focused on providing analysis so we can make stronger claims or better assessments about future quantum computing. I have to say that I think our assessment is going to change over time, that the gap between applications and capabilities is narrowing. It is obvious that everyone is working towards it. So we need to start thinking about how to get ahead of that. What does that look like? Exactly?

Burke’s perspective was interesting, and a slide above may be worth repeating as context for upcoming comments from the DoD’s head of quantum research.

“So this timeline is, you know, pretty vague (slide above). It’s almost the end of 2023, [and] We are almost in the future. The question is what will we do in the future? And the answer is that we don’t know. But I think now is the time to try to figure it out. How would we go about doing that? There is a long list [of ideas]. But going beyond what the algorithms are, what the types of specific capabilities of the approach are, [and] delving into every level of detail: everything from the potential benefits, how it actually compares to classical computing, [how] all classical computing could advance in the future, [and] estimate the real economic value and impact of these things.

“Basically, [DoD needs to] come with a really solid benefit statement. What exactly is the benefit of quantum computing? So moving on to costs? How much would it actually cost to build one of these devices, run one of these devices, [and] What are the risks associated with it? I imagine the government, much less the Department of Defense, will have to make decisions about what to do with quantum computers as they develop. “We need to get ahead of a framework to make that decision.”

There was much more to the QEDC meeting and the live-streamed opening session. Executive Director Celia Merzbacher presented a QEDC progress report, which HPC cable We will discuss it in another article. Bob Sorensen of Hyperion Research presented his annual quantum market update. There were presentations by Jen Dionne, Sr. associate vice chancellor for research at Stanford University, and by Irfan Siddiqi, Advanced Quantum Testbed and Quantum Nanoelectronics Lab, UC Berkeley, on opportunities for industry engagement.

Alan McQuinn, member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, gave a brief talk on the reauthorization of the National Quantum Initiative Act; He said it now appears the reauthorization will occur next year. Merzbacher also had a fireside chat with Karl Mehta, president of Quad Investors Network, about access to capital.

Stay tuned.

Links to Department of Defense programs cited by Burke

Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing (US2QC)


Optimization with noisy intermediate scale quantum devices (ONISQ)


Quantum Benchmarking (QB)


The Microelectronics Commons: A National Network of Prototyping Innovation Centers


Slides: Ungraded slides taken from Burke’s presentation

Note: [i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chip-scale_atomic_clock

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