Can government fund emerging tech for the long haul?
- By Chase Gunter
- Apr 16, 2019
Quantum computing promises to upend current cybersecurity configurations, as well as any number of IT applications. But as government stakes out its early research and development commitments in the emerging tech, focusing too much on the hypothetical could ultimately hinder quantum's development, said Joan Hoffman, a program manager at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab.
Speaking at an April 16 event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, Hoffman noted that while "there's a lot of excitement right now" surrounding quantum, the technology "is still very much in its infancy."
"I think there's a real risk if people's expectations get too far ahead of what we're able to do," she said. "If we fail to identify some sort of medium-term applications, there's a risk of a fall-off there."
For all the speculation and excitement around the technology, Hoffman said the key to maintaining interest from lawmakers and other investors will be "identifying some of these near-term applications … to figure out what we can do with it and something that will be compelling."
For some time, academics have cited the need for advancements in quantum computing on a national level, and recently, Congress and the White House took initial action. The National Quantum Initiative Act, passed in December, called for a $1.2 billion jumpstart over 10 years to fuel quantum research.
But as Hoffman, also a member of Defense Science Board Task Force on Applications of Quantum Technologies, noted, the initiative "has not been funded yet."
Still, the intelligence community is looking toward possible future uses of quantum and artificial intelligence. Stacey Dixon, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, pointed out the research agency is "in the process of starting" two AI programs relating to information assurance and data protection. The agency also supports several quantum-focused programs.
The White House's fiscal year 2020 budget does specifically carve out funds for research in the quantum and AI fields. With that proposal, plus the legislative backing behind the importance of the technologies' research, Dixon said to prove their worth, "we just need a little bit of time."
And despite limited federal funding to date, industry has begun investing in quantum development and other emerging technologies "that used be the area government had to lead," Dixon said.
Emerging technology presents special difficulties recruiting talent.
Dixon said that IARPA has been investing in relatively low-cost, open prize challenges to allow academic and commercial teams to compete, offering winners a check. Still, those alternatives cannot entirely stand in for full-time employees dedicated to research.
Dixon said that a unique hiring challenge for quantum, as opposed to another tech space like cybersecurity, is that "not a lot of students are actually studying that yet."
"We're starting from behind, but eventually, it's going to have the same problems as the other [tech areas]," she said.
Because it's still early days for these emerging technologies, government has a unique opportunity to make inroads. But taking advantage of that will require more transparency, outreach and trust-building on the part of government, Dixon said.
"If you look at other countries who want to have the tech advantage, they are required in many cases to support their government and do research for the good of the country," she said. "I don't want to have to require anyone."
Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.