One of the many laudable ideas in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is the proposal to invest in quantum computing technology. With applications in transport optimization and clean energy innovation, quantum computing could help fulfill the president’s infrastructure and climate agenda. Investing in quantum computing has support on both sides of the aisle but instead of focusing on practical opportunities that would help build back the U.S. economy, the bill zeros in on theoretical use cases that may not bear fruit for a decade.
The president’s plan calls for quantum computing investment as part of the $15 billion of funding for demonstration projects related to climate R&D priorities. Quantum computers, which leverage principles of quantum physics to enable powerful new computing architectures, could certainly fuel clean energy innovation in theory. For instance, because quantum computers can efficiently simulate the quantum behavior of molecules, they could help scientists discover catalysts that lower the energy requirements for hydrogen and ammonia production, or new solvents and membranes that make carbon capture—whether from industrial sources or directly from the atmosphere—cheaper and more efficient.
But quantum computing is still in its early stages and a quantum computer capable of efficiently conducting such feats is likely many years away. If policymakers want to scale-up quantum computing technologies and grow the U.S. economy, they should prioritize near-term, proven quantum applications that can make a real difference if applied more systematically today.
Most critically, Congress should look at ways quantum computing could revolutionize America’s transportation system as it considers the infrastructure bill. Quantum computers have already shown that they can solve optimization problems better, faster, and more efficiently than traditional computers, and companies in other countries are using them to better solve transport optimization problems. Volkswagen, for example, is using quantum computing to optimize traffic and travel times by directing buses in Lisbon and taxis in Barcelona to take the most efficient route. In Japan, tech company Groovenauts has partnered with Mitsubishi to develop an optimized waste collection and transportation route between 26 designated sites using quantum computing, reducing the total distance traveled by waste collection vehicles from 2,300 km to 1,000 km, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by 57 percent, and the number of vehicles needed by 59 percent.
This does not mean that the use of quantum computers for long-term policy goals should be ignored. Rather, policymakers should recognize that quantum computing is one of the many digital infrastructures that can help deliver on practical ways to build back better today. One way Congress can support near-term quantum applications for infrastructure is by requiring the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop a comprehensive quantum strategy that articulates how it can promote the rapid deployment and adoption of proven quantum applications across the United States. Since many of these applications will rely on access to mobility data, DOT should establish a platform that aggregates and centralizes mobility data across cities, to which public and private players can contribute. Portugal’s Centre for Excellence and Innovation in the Automotive Industry has done something similar with its mobi.me system, an integrated platform that connects all types of real-time mobility data into one place, which has helped the country become one of the leading users of quantum computing technology for optimizing traffic.
Quantum computing is not only important in the short-term because it can enhance convenience and deliver environmental benefits, but because it can boost productivity and economic growth. By improving how the transportation system operates and performs, quantum computing can help ensure that people and products reach their appointed destinations as quickly and efficiently as possible. This in turn can enhance the productivity of U.S. workers and businesses, as well as bolster U.S. economic competitiveness.
Reimagining transportation will be particularly important in the next year as people look to transition out of the pandemic. Lasting changes in how people travel will likely have significant implications for railways and airlines that have suffered reduced revenues from falling ridership and flyers. And with more people driving cars and riding bikes than pre-pandemic, policymakers will have to consider how best to manage an evolving travel landscape.
In the end, the American Jobs Plan should not overlook near-term quantum applications, not only because it could help the United States recover from the pandemic, but because the resulting growth in the field could give the ecosystem of academic, government, and commercial actors the springboard they need to achieve longer-term aspirations.
Image credits: Flickr user Gage Skidmore,