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The U.S. Can’t Lead on Quantum Computing Alone

By Bronte Munro

Quantum computing will be one of the most defining technologies of the century. It will intersect and enhance capabilities across sectors such as climate change, manufacturing, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

China is ranked second to the United States in terms of research about this technology, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Critical Technology Tracker, and the race to achieve quantum supremacy is intensifying.

In particular, the United States must work to mitigate the risks that quantum computers pose to national and economic security. These computers will be able to surpass existing cybersecurity encryption standards in minutes, even in situations that would take a conventional computer years to solve, compromising the confidentiality and integrity of the security used for everything from banking to data storage and internet communication.

Preparations for such a scenario are already being undertaken in the United States by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has released its first batch of four cryptographic algorithms designed to withstand decryption by a future quantum computer.

However, the United States can’t safeguard its leadership on quantum computing by acting alone. In a similar situation to the semiconductor industry, there is a limited global talent pool of expertise in the sector, and Washington needs to coordinate the human capital, research and development, and the advanced manufacturing capabilities needed to bring quantum computing online in a time frame conducive to the pacing threat that China poses.

The United States has already acknowledged the pressing need to secure advanced technology supply chains through the passing of the CHIPS and Science Act in August 2022. As the country looks to place similar export controls on advanced technologies such as quantum computing, it must not cut its allies out.

Instead, Washington needs to leverage the complementary strengths of each nations’ advanced technology ecosystems. That collaboration must begin with semiconductors.

Conversations on the security of advanced semiconductor supply chains and the importance of investment in quantum computing often occur independently. Yet, Washington’s ability to maintain global leadership in the quantum computing industry hinges on secure access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing.

Advanced semiconductors serve as the processors of quantum computers. They contain “qubits” (short for “quantum bits”) that enable these computers to process algorithms and equations significantly faster than standard computers. The more qubits that a quantum computer contains, the more powerful it is. In the global race to develop a useful quantum computer that is commercially scalable, access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing will be a determining factor in winning.

China is being forced into domestic manufacturing of advanced semiconductors due to U.S. export controls imposed under the CHIPS and Science Act. However, in August, Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei released its latest smartphone, containing an advanced, Chinese-manufactured 7 nanometer chip, which suggests that China’s semiconductor industry is adapting to the export controls designed to slow its advancements. China is also developing its advanced foundry capabilities, which are used in the chip manufacturing process, and this will further aid its quantum computing industry.

Australia is a natural partner for the United States on quantum computing. Despite having only 0.3 percent of the global population, Australia is home to 10 percent of the world’s quantum scientists; these scientists are supported by a national quantum strategy. Announced in May, the strategy lays out the ambitious goal of building the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer and the importance of collaboration with trusted partners in the private sector to create it.

Collaboration between the United States and Australia in quantum computing sciences dates to the late 1990s, when there was engagement between the U.S. Army Research Office and Australian quantum computing research centers. In 2021, a landmark statement of intent was signed between the two governments to cooperate and share the benefits of quantum information and science technologies.

But commitment must continue to go beyond government-to-government engagement and involve academia and industry, as well. One example of these partnerships was made in September 2023, when Australia-based companies Q-CTRL, a quantum infrastructure software developer, and Diraq, a leading innovator in silicon-based quantum computing, announced a joint venture in pursuit of projects funded by both the U.S. and Australian governments, with the shared goal of accelerating the commercial adoption of quantum computing.

Alongside the U.S.-Australia bilateral relationship, the AUKUS security arrangement offers the two nations an endorsed pathway to deepen innovation ties and achieve scalability alongside the United Kingdom. Quantum computing has been identified as a priority for AUKUS partners under their technology-sharing agreement as one of eight specified areas of advanced capability collaboration. While global collaboration should not be limited to AUKUS partners, it provides a starting framework for coordinating strategic investment between the three nations.

U.S.-based quantum computing company PsiQuantum is a prime example of partnerships between the quantum industry and semiconductor manufacturers within an alliance ecosystem. With Australian origins and a presence in the U.K. quantum computing industry, PsiQuantum has established a strategic partnership with the U.S. semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries.

Investment from the U.S. semiconductor industry alongside the Australian and U.K. quantum computing industry can facilitate access to the advanced manufacturing capabilities needed to develop quantum computing technologies. The collaboration utilizes otherwise disparate talent pools, provides U.S. industry with access to additional advanced research and development, and has the dual benefit of diversifying advanced manufacturing supply chains for the United States.

The United Kingdom and Australia host a range of quantum organizations that could be grown through similar partnerships with U.S. semiconductor foundries. In the U.K., the National Quantum Computing Centre is backed by government support. Similarly in Australia, there are several global quantum front-runners.

Beyond AUKUS, the United States can also look to other nations for examples of successful public-private partnerships, such as that of Canadian quantum company Xanadu, which has partnered with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea to develop a quantum workforce pipeline. The institute also undertakes advanced semiconductor research, and South Korea is, of course, a key player in global advanced chip manufacturing supply chains.

While industry players understand the technical needs of their technologies, support from government is key to accelerating these activities. It provides access to capital and markets that encourage industry growth where, under natural market conditions, it might have been slower.

The United States and allied governments therefore need to collaborate to provide investment incentives to encourage public-private partnership between quantum computing companies and mature U.S.-based chip manufacturers. Collaboration will require relationship building, infrastructure investment, and research and development coordination that should begin now.

Moreover, as global leaders in quantum computing, the United States and allies also can shape the industry as it develops through the establishment of international standards and norms, ensuring that the technology is brought online responsibly. This includes the ability to shape strategic supply chain development and ensure that infrastructure such as specialized data centers and a highly skilled workforce are built and cultivated within a trusted alliance ecosystem that can withstand geostrategic competition.

The United States is already throwing everything it can at slowing down China’s access to the technology and the expertise it needs to gain a competitive advantage in key technology areas. Access to talent, research and innovation, and advanced semiconductor manufacturing are vital ingredients in achieving quantum computing leadership. As global technology competition continues to intensify, a strong history of allied partnership is an advantage that the United States holds over adversaries, and it needs to be bullish about leveraging it.