Quantum Leadership
Billboard in Silicon Valley with a Message from the Canadian Government

I remember on my first day at Intel my boss took me around for introductions to everyone and made the comment “You know, working at Intel is like working at the United Nations. You will find people from every nationality working here.”  And that certainly turned out to be true. Over my years in classical computing I’ve had the privilege of working with people from all over the world and every continent except for Antarctica.

One of the secrets why the United States has been so strong in technology is because the companies here recruited the best and the brightest from all over the world to create a culture of innovation that was enhanced by immigrants who took a risk to get here in the first place. One of the repeated findings of academic research is that diversity helps to drive innovation (see here, here, and here, for example) and having people on your team from different cultures and geographies can help give you that diversity.

The quantum computing industry will be no different from any of the others.  Although today one can argue that the U.S. is currently ahead of other countries in developing quantum technology, this lead can be jeopardized if it can’t recruit the best researchers and engineers.  Already, one of the largest concerns of things that could bottleneck the quantum development is the availability of a quality quantum ready workforce. Quantum is already a competitive industry and there will be increased global competition for the best talent.

The current situation of putting limits and restrictions on H-1B, L-1 and F-1 visas will have a chilling effect on the U.S. quantum industry which will have both direct and indirect impacts. Already, I’ve heard of companies thinking of expanding operations in Canada instead of the U.S. And even though the U.S. has some of the best universities, outstanding international students will choose to study quantum technologies in Canada or Europe or Australia rather than the U.S.  Once these students graduate from schools overseas, they will likely decide to permanently stay in those countries and get jobs in the local companies located there.

The U.S. dominance in semiconductors and computers fifty years ago was due to a variety of factors.  Certainly, having an immigration system that allowed U.S. companies to recruit the best and the brightest was an important factor.  However, the U.S. had other advantages then that it no longer holds.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the semiconductor industry was just getting started, the U.S., had a strong industrial sector and infrastructure that did not have to devote resources to recover from the destruction seen in Europe and Asia during World War II. Also, the semiconductor industry was helped immensely by the requirements of the 1960’s Space Race that drove the industry to develop integrated circuits and miniaturized electronic systems. In the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s travel was more difficult and expensive and there was no internet. Although it may seem counterintuitive to say that lack of an internet helped the U.S. advantage over other countries, it forced the creation of technology clusters like Silicon Valley that allowed engineers within a close geographical area to interact with each other much more than they would with people farther away. Of course, this also created a lot of job hopping since someone could get a better job at a company down the street, but this helped to spread technical advances quickly within U.S. companies and helped the U.S. industry overall. (See this article published on the Computer History Museum’s web site that described how dozens of U.S. companies were created as spinoffs from Fairchild Semiconductor.)

Many of the advantages that the U.S. had fifty years ago are no longer present.  Countries overseas are no longer rebuilding their infrastructure from World War II; many of them have their own space agencies and defense departments that can provide local companies with contracts to purchase their technology; and the internet, Zoom, and overnight delivery services make it as easy to work with a design center in Toronto or Vancouver as it would to work with someone in a building across the street.

We have been tracking many of the announced funding programs that foreign governments have been budgeting for quantum computing and some of these exceed those currently in place in the U.S. These governments have seen how the U.S. dominated the classical computing industry and have vowed not to see this repeated. Check out the national quantum strategy documents from France, The Netherlands, and Australia for some examples. We have been tracking hardware startups in quantum computing and see that two-thirds of them are based outside of the United State. In the U.K, the government has just released funding of $9.3 million to a U.K. consortium to develop their own quantum operating system called Deltaflow.OS. One goal of this effort is that it could provide a U.K. alternative to current quantum operating platforms from American companies including IBM (Qiskit), Google (Cirq), Rigetti (Forest), Microsoft (Q#), and soon Amazon.

So the point is that it is quite unlikely that U.S. will dominate quantum computing in the same way it did with semiconductors and classical computing. Many of the historical advantages the U.S. had when classical computing was developing are no longer present. The one advantage the U.S. can still leverage is to maintain its position as the land of opportunity where bright scientists and engineers from all over the world can come, freely express their ideas and innovations, work hard, and achieve success for themselves, their companies, and the country. So the message to U.S. politicians is: Don’t blow it and destroy the biggest advantage the country may have in keeping U.S. leadership in quantum technology. We need to have a strong program to attract and retain the best global talent in quantum technologies if we want to stay ahead of the game.

July 11, 2020