Future Tense

What if Quantum Computing Is a Bust?

A snow-covered mountain under cloudy skies.
Quantum winter is coming? Maybe. Robert Haverly/Unsplash

This article is adapted from Law and Policy for the Quantum Age by Chris Jay Hoofnagle and Simson L. Garfinkel, Cambridge University Press.

Headlines regularly hail what appears to be an imminent arrival of large-scale quantum computing. Honeywell spinoff Quantinuum recently announced a performant ion-trap quantum computer. Startups are projecting that they will build ever-larger quantum computing processors and devices. A group of quantum computing companies now make their devices available as cloud services through Amazon. In 2021, the first quantum computing startup went public, listing on the NYSE as IONQ.

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Meanwhile, governments are pumping billions into quantum information science. In the U.S., much of this support flows through Department of Energy National Laboratories, meaning that a great leap forward in quantum computing could occur in secrecy and potentially give the U.S. government an advantage over all other actors.

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Companies and governments have been pouring money into quantum computing since the 1990s, when computer scientist Peter Shor came up with a mathematical proof showing that a fully functional quantum computer could rapidly crack messages encrypted with the RSA encryption algorithm. Systems based on advance quantum sensing might be able to literally see through walls and detect underground installations—possibly from orbit! And quantum cryptography and quantum networking offer the possibility of being able to send messages encrypted with the physics of quantum mechanics—a code that would be truly unbreakable, not just by regular computers and quantum computers, but by anything else that we can conceive of that is consistent with the law of physics as we understand them.

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Are we facing a future where governments dominate quantum technologies, and use them to collect and make sense of information about us? Or might the future bring some other landscape, where quantum technologies protect the communications of the average person and quantum sensing helps us diagnose and treat illness?

We think that there are several possible scenarios for future quantum technologies, as we discuss in our new book Law and Policy for the Quantum Age. The first, “Government Superior and Dominant,” is a world where the Department of Energy National Laboratories succeed against skeptics’ predictions and create a working quantum computer—but these machines are so fantastically expensive and complex that they are only available to superpower governments, enabling unprecedented capabilities for eavesdropping, surveillance and prediction. An alternative scenario is the “Private/Public Utopia,” where quantum technology is developed in both sectors, and an alternative outcome where quantum technology becomes yet another controlled technology in the battle between East and West.

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This essay explores our final scenario, one that we assess is likely. Quantum computing skeptic Mikhail Dyakonov, a prominent professor of physics in France, thinks that the technical challenges will prevent technologists from ever realizing the elusive promise of quantum computing. “No, we will never have a quantum computer,” he says. “Instead, we might have some special-task (and outrageously expensive) quantum devices operating at millikelvin temperatures.” What if, as some critics like Dyakonov argue, quantum computing is just too complicated and too hard a problem to solve—at least for the next few decades? What if, as happened in artificial intelligence in the 1970s and in cold fusion, quantum technologies experience a “winter,” a period where enthusiasm and funding for the entire class of technologies lags?

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In this scenario (call it “Quantum Winter”), quantum computing devices remain noisy and never scale to a meaningful quantum advantage. It seems likely that even if quantum computers never succeed at cracking codes, we will be able to use them to improve artificial intelligence/machine learning applications. But even so, quantum computers might never be as fast as conventional systems, which would remain faster, more manageable, and more affordable. In this scenario, “quantum” might remain a serviceable marketing term. But as is the case today, supercomputers, simulators, and optimizers significantly outperform their quantum counterparts. After a tremendous amount of public and private monies are spent pursuing quantum technologies, businesses in the field are limited to research applications or simply fail, and career paths wither.

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If that happens, funding eventually dries up for quantum computing. Academics and scientists in the field either retool and shift, or simply appear irrelevant, even embarrassing. As the winter proceeds, hiring priorities shift to other disciplines, further sidelining quantum technologies as a field. Even where important developments are made, they are given short shrift, viewed with skepticism, or simply seen as irrelevant to computing praxis.

One of the greatest risks of a short-term failure scenario is whether we are willing to recognize it. One sign that quantum winter is approaching would be for quantum technology advocates to continually “move the goalposts,” and insist that grand discoveries are around the corner if we just keep funding the dream. The politicians, military leaders, scientists, and CEOs who invest in quantum technologies will become diehard defenders of them—until they stop or are replaced.

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If we do not recognize failure, investment in quantum computing will continue to be at the expense of other, more promising fields. For example, the billions of dollars invested in precision medicine have not delivered on promises of revolutions in therapy or life extension. Its advocates, perhaps because their professional reputations are tied to its promise, keep the faith. Meanwhile, public funding for precision medicine has appeared to come to the detriment of tried-and-true investments, such as public health interventions.

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But the primary danger of a quantum winter isn’t the wasted resources and careers—it’s that research abruptly stops, resulting in economic dislocation and delaying discoveries that aren’t around the corner, but may be just over the horizon. The AI winters (there were two, one in the late 1970s, one in the late 1980s) stunted some research efforts that eventually proved successful, and killed others outright. The AI we have now lacks two hallmarks of the earlier AI waves: systematic approaches for knowledge representation (which represents semantic information symbolically, like a database of facts, rather than as huge corpus of text that is mined for the correct answers) and explainability (in which the AI algorithm can explain why it came up with a particular conclusion—for example, that one person is likely to re-offend and should be kept in prison, while another should be released on parole).

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A quantum winter would be in keeping with the boom/bust cycle of many technologies in the West. Before the bust, there is general technology optimism, boosterism from news media and investors, emphasis on growth over sustainable operations, and inability to critically judge innovations—all could contribute to a refusal to recognize failure. Then comes the bust.

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Quantum technologies, because of their complexity and the secrecy surrounding their research and development, are well poised to fall victim to these dynamics. Consider the relatively recent failures among firms that have presented themselves as “technology companies” such as office-space-leasing firm WeWork and German payments company Wirecard AG. Sometimes investors give traditional companies a pass by if they are seen as “technology” companies instead of ordinary ones that use technology. This regulatory misclassification, with looser scrutiny because of “technology,” appears to have helped Wirecard AG evade earlier detection. Private companies also enjoy less transparency, and in some cases, loose norms that enable inventive accounting. Ordinary investors might be confused by these norms, because publicly traded companies have more defined benchmarks and different scrutiny from regulators.

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Throughout history, publics have fallen victim to secretive, cultlike profitmaking claims—and we seem not to be able to learn from these patterns. From Charles Ponzi’s international postal stamp arbitrage scheme to Elizabeth Holmes’ drop-of-blood-testing Theranos, these schemes work because of the same elements currently present in technology generally: optimism, boosterism, secrecy, and a network of people invested who could make a fortune if the company succeeds in the short term. In-the-know insiders often cannot whistle-blow because companies pressure them with nondisparagement agreements and threats from lawyers (and sometimes even the government).

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Many of the elements that obscured the dead-end truths about other technologies are present in quantum technologies. Quantum technologies’ complexity, the elite nature of the field’s scientists, secrecy mandates, incentives to maintain funding, incentives to appear innovative and profitable, and lack of third parties in a natural position to inspect and report on performance—together, they all could combine to obscure the prospects of quantum technologies. Worse, the concepts of indeterminacy and entanglement provide endless fodder for philosophical exploration and even breathing room for strained religious doctrines, such as mind–body dualism. (Deepak Chopra has written several books tying quantum physics to healing, and specifically the remission of cancer. Chopra was awarded the Ig Nobel prize in 1998 “for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.”)

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The failure scenario has different implications for quantum communications and sensing. These related categories of quantum technologies can succeed even if large-scale computing is not realized. In quantum communications, quantum effects are used to generate and share encryption keys that are invulnerable to cryptanalysis. (These systems are vulnerable to other kinds of attacks, just as existing encryption systems are.) Quantum sensing uses quantum effects to measure other phenomena, giving us wonderful technologies such as the MRI, and in state-of-the-science devices, remote sensing of magnetic and gravimetric fields, with many military and scientific applications.

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In communications, many of the underlying technical achievements have been made to support deployment of commercial technologies. Quantum key distribution-based hardware is commercially available today for militaries and companies interested in it. If quantum communications fails, it won’t be because the technology doesn’t work: It will be because the technology isn’t needed, or because its use is limited due to network effects, other market conditions, or prohibitions on its use that cause firms not to adopt it.

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In sensing too, the failure scenario does not mean that quantum technology is a complete bust. Quantum sensors have worked for decades in the form of medical imaging devices, and sophisticated, well-heeled entities will continue to invest in them. For instance, the oil and gas industries, also early patrons of the supercomputing industry, are already poised to take advantage of quantum sensing in order to detect natural resources underground. Governments will continue to create demand for satellite-based sensing, and for sensing to counter electronic warfare capabilities. They just might avoid using the word quantum.

This means that even in a quantum computing failure scenario, quantum sensing technologies would still likely create national winners and losers. In part this is because the military and intelligence agencies will benefit so much from quantum sensing. Quantum sensing, particular for nations with space programs, will give governments a bigger aperture on other countries’ activities, and help detect even low-observable stealth technologies.

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Yet the public might be a loser in the failure scenario, which will lack the virtuous cycle of competition, research, and price reduction that gave rise to the personal computer. Instead, we are likely to see a much slower growth cycle of quantum sensors and communications—just as we saw with AI from the early 1990s through the mid-2010s. Cutting-edge industries will be willing to invest and experiment because the payoff could be high. But the advantages of quantum encryption and quantum sensing will more slowly diffuse to other players. Industries that depend deeply on sensing, such as health care, will be willing to invest in quantum sensors. But without a virtuous cycle, these sensors will never enter the consumer marketplace and will only remain in reach of businesses.

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Other losers include big-ticket government investments. The billions spent on quantum technologies and artificial intelligence—priorities voiced by both the Trump and Biden administrations—come at a cost to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. As such, the quantum science and artificial intelligence priorities displace the priorities that would have been identified by expert program officers at those agencies. The commandeering of such a large amount of money also assumes that American research universities and companies have the capacity to perform so much research in quantum information science. Where does a quantum failure scenario leave the people and institutions who have invested their money and careers into quantum technologies? Nevertheless, the outlook for these people will remain bright even in the failure scenario. The skills and training required, and the multidisciplinary of the quantum technology enterprise will be adaptable to other fields.

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Even faced with winter, governments will prefer to be both technologically superior and dominant in quantum technologies, and they will use this advantage to supplement military power. But we are no longer living in the Cold War military/industrial research era. The private sector competes with governments in development, and there is good reason to believe that the private sector could build a quantum computer before or soon after a government does. Unlike stealth jets and bombs, development in quantum technologies is likely to have many potential buyers and many unforeseen uses, much like the modern personal computer. Private companies seeking economic return will broadly democratize access to quantum computing services. Yet we must also contemplate the possibility that it is simply too soon for the quantum age: Perhaps investments will pay off not in the near term, but decades in the future instead.

The views expressed in this book excerpt are those of the authors and do not represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. government.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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