Will the United States Lead in Quantum Computing?



In the 1960’s and 1970’s the United States was the undisputed leader in the semiconductor and computer markets.   The computer industry was dominated by IBM and the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell) along with a few other American companies.    The semiconductor industry was led by Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, and Intel; all American companies.   This lead in semiconductors and computers was fostered by U.S. government investments for use in military and space projects, the advent of the venture capital industry in the U.S., and the communications and recruiting advantages related to the co-location of many of these companies in Silicon Valley.

Quantum Computing in the 21st century looks a lot different.   The Economist recently published an interesting article titled Here, There and Everywhere that included an interesting chart showing quantum technology investments in 2015.  Some key numbers from this chart (converted to U.S. dollars) shows the following:

Total Worldwide Non-Classified Research                          $1600 million
European Union (combined)                                                       $585 million
U.S.                                                                                                   $385 million
China                                                                                               $235 million
Canada                                                                                            $106 million
Australia                                                                                          $80 million
Japan                                                                                                $67 million

Although U.S. spending in classified research probably outweighs the classified investments of all the other countries, the basic conclusion would not change very much.   Only 25% of quantum technology research is now done in the United States.  This ratio is significantly smaller than the U.S. share of classical computing research investments 50 years ago.

Perhaps learning from previous history several governments don’t want to be left behind again and have announced programs to invest in quantum technology research.    These include a $49.6 million (US) award by the Australian Research Council, a $59 million (US) award to the University of Waterloo, and the European Commission’s Quantum Flagship program that intends to fund one billion Euros for quantum research.   In July of 2016, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council published a report titled Advancing Quantum Information Science: National Challenges and Opportunities calling for strategic investment in targeted programs and close monitoring of the field.   However, with the U.S. government’s change of administration and new budget priorities it is unclear if there will be a follow through on these recommendations.

And perhaps another factor that is different from the early semiconductor and computing industry is the rise of the Internet which makes geographic closeness less important than in the past.   Whereas the early semiconductor pioneers used to congregate at Walker’s Wagon Wheel in Mountain View to gossip about the latest developments, today’s quantum engineers publish their results on arXiv.org.   Nowadays we have advanced social media capabilities such as Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook, remote Internet webinar’s that can allow anyone worldwide to attend a lecture and increased media coverage that will communicate worldwide any new announcements in a matter of hours.  As a result, it is no longer as important for companies to be clustered in a small geographic area like Silicon Valley or even within a single country like the United States.

But R&D investment is not everything.  Today, the only company achieving any significant revenue in quantum computing is D-Wave, a Canadian company.  However, the next wave of companies expected to start offering commercial products or services including IBM, Google, Rigetti, Microsoft and a few others that are all based in the U.S.  U.S. entities may still have some advantages in commercialization due to strengths in cloud computing, software-as-a-service expertise, and the availability of a large pool of commercialization talent that can be recruited from the classical computing industry.

So there will be interesting developments over the next few years and it will be interesting to watch.  Although we can predict some things from previous experiences it is probable that the quantum computing industry will likely be much more geographically diverse than the classical computing industry ever was.

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