U.S. quantum leadership may hinge on public perceptions

December 5, 2023

  • Unlike the public fascination with AI, quantum computing remains largely misunderstood and somewhat unapproachable.
  • This lack of popularity may jeopardize human capital, research advancement, and the economic potential of quantum computing technology in the U.S.
  • Formal education and general literacy initiatives to foster public awareness about quantum computing are crucial to ensure its responsible development and deployment.
International Business Machines’ (IBM) Quantum System Two computer containing three "Heron" processors.
International Business Machines’ (IBM) Quantum System Two computer containing three "Heron" processors is seen in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of International Business Machines/Handout via REUTERS

As the world becomes further shaped by artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, a revolution of a different shade is quietly brewing in the realm of quantum information science and technology (QIST). Quantum computing, in particular, represents a potentially transformative force across the scientific, economic, and defense sectors in the United States. In stark contrast to the public’s fascination with AI, quantum computing remains largely misunderstood and somewhat unapproachable — it does not enjoy the same popularity. However, this gap in understanding may jeopardize U.S. QIST human capital, research advancement, and economic potential.

Amid the White House’s Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence, the United Kingdom’s AI Safety Summit, and the mass public use of generative AI, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology took a bold step toward advancing U.S. quantum computing capacity by passing legislation to reauthorize the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act (H.R. 6213), which was set to expire in September 2023. QIST is widely acknowledged as vital to the future of U.S. research, competitiveness, and security, and is characterized as a collection of tools that holds tremendous promise for advancing various industries, ranging from medicine and materials science to finance and cybersecurity.

The NQI Reauthorization Act signifies a pivotal moment for QIST and signals a broader need for expanding investments in quantum workforce development. U.S. jobs in the quantum sector across academia, industry, and government must be filled by skilled workers from a variety of disciplines to reap maximal societal benefit. This workforce pipeline has not yet been fully realized, and the lack of exposure to students, trainees, and well-positioned professionals may prove an additional impediment.

Meaningful public awareness through more formal education and general literacy initiatives is crucial to ensuring the responsible development, adoption, and support of this groundbreaking technology in the United States. The success of a sustainable workforce recruitment strategy and pipeline may largely rely on individuals’ attitudes and their understanding of, and accessibility to, this emerging technology.

Today’s technology for tomorrow’s applications

Quantum computing is rooted in the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. At present, it’s a special-purpose tool that’s not necessarily appropriate for general computing tasks — right now, classical computing serves those purposes adequately. Existing quantum computers also do not outperform traditional computers in solving the practical problems of today, but this trend will eventually change.

QIST, still a budding field, is often perceived as enigmatic and elusive. Quantum mechanics strikes the general public as imposing, complex, and difficult to grasp. The high costs associated with building and operating quantum computers limit their accessibility, fostering a sense of exclusivity. And, to some degree, quantum computing suffers from its own flavor of hype as seen in other emerging technologies — this may drive misdirected speculation and further contribute to confusion regarding its capabilities. Yet this has not slowed progress within a small community of experts.

Researchers have endeavored to measure the unique characteristics that distinguish quantum computing from its classical predecessor, despite the underlying scientific principles of QIST enabling scientific breakthroughs from decades ago. The 20th century saw significant research aimed at comprehending our natural world through quantum mechanics-based products and innovations, including semiconductors and functional magnetic resonance imaging. A modern approach now seeks to manipulate these same natural phenomena, while grappling with the concepts of superposition and entanglement. Yet, the sector has not yielded a commercial product that offers a direct user interface. It’s also still unclear how QIST will generate economic value, although these systems demonstrate promise in addressing challenges related to cryptographic code-breaking and quantum simulation.

The confusing intricacies of QIST are intensified by the absence of real-world applications. This poses a significant hurdle for educators working to raise awareness about the field to a new generation of students. It falls on the capable shoulders of teachers to utilize informative resources optimally, necessitating a heightened focus on teacher training and the development of suitable curricula. The NQI Reauthorization Act adds important provisions to increase QIST exposure for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs; implements plans to increase participation of women and other historically underrepresented groups; and further strengthens student workforce programs.

While the prospects for future quantum talent are troubling, the lack of diversity and capacity within the QIST pipeline is even more so and can potentially undermine U.S. competitiveness. Attracting and retaining foreign talent will serve as an essential strategic counterpart in filling the vacant roles emerging from QIST as well. Research has already found that underrepresented students, particularly women and students of color, may self-select out of difficult STEM courses during formative middle school years, which is a precursor to quantum computing. Thus, addressing the public image of QIST can help create a more diverse workforce.

Encourage excitement, alleviate fear

QIST’s mystery and mystique can create a significant barrier to fostering interest and recruitment of students and professionals from adjacent sectors, and a daunting chasm in knowledge between the experts and the general public. To overcome these challenges, initiatives that demystify the subject and make it more accessible to non-experts are urgently needed to promote a broader understanding and appreciation for its scientific and societal relevance. Policymakers should take note as well, as improved comprehension is necessary to govern the QIST space in support of U.S. ambitions for global leadership and to counter security concerns associated with China.

Understanding emerging technologies constitutes another timely challenge for society. It’s often unnecessary for most users to know the inner workings of all the technologies at their fingertips. However, even generative AI suffers from an extraordinary dearth of understanding. Public science literacy must keep up with emerging technologies due to their undeniable societal relevance and global implications. As these industries expand, there is a growing concern among experts about the shortage of qualified professionals, a gap that may continue to widen. In this context, robust research and development are no substitute for intentional efforts to enhance the United States’ quantum education and literacy.

There’s also a unique opportunity to implement a divergent approach from AI. Whereas some of the implications around generative AI have only been revealed once arriving in users’ hands, U.S. quantum computing strategies can be intentional about cultivating an informed community at the same time the technology is being developed. Heightened investment must be complemented by meaningful public engagement.

It’s time to prioritize quantum education

The NQI Reauthorization Act offers a tremendous step forward in quantum computing and is complementary to national efforts in AI workforce development. The CHIPS and Science Act built a solid foundation for the U.S. QIST ecosystem and called on the National Science Foundation to increase the integration of quantum into STEM curricula, create education pilot programs, and conduct workforce assessments. Now, the full House must pass it too. The legislative funding should meet and surpass previous levels set by the NQI, as reauthorization demands bipartisan and bicameral support, paired with ample financial backing. Sustained Congressional appropriations reinforcing these initiatives will ensure the United States generates a domestic workforce capable of meeting the needs of industry and academia.

These proposals are necessary, but not sufficient. They must be accompanied by thoughtful and innovative initiatives that elevate public literacy and formal training related to QIST. Recent amendments to this end are welcome, including new language to incorporate the Department of Education in quantum issues. Deeper interventions, more formal education opportunities, and expanded public literacy will be required to build out career trajectories, mentorship networks, and experiential learning opportunities, and to offer consistent QIST-related STEM programming.

The United States cannot afford for QIST to be viewed as another “hard” STEM subject for trainees. To accommodate future economic and national security demands, as well as research and development needs, it is essential for Congress to pass the NQI Reauthorization Act with an eye toward emphasizing teacher training, educational curricula, and public literacy. The prospects for quantum computing lie not only in the hands of scientists and engineers, but also depend on the understanding and support of the general public.