Policy Brief - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Technology Factsheet: Quantum Computing

  • Emma Rosenfeld
  • Mikhail Lukin
  • William Oliver
| Spring 2020

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Executive Summary

Quantum computing refers to the use of quantum properties—the properties of nature on an atomic scale—to solve complex problems much faster than conventional, or classical, computers. Quantum computers are not simply faster versions of conventional computers, though they are a fundamentally different computing paradigm due to their ability to leverage quantum mechanics. Harnessing quantum properties, namely the ability for the quantum computer bits (called “qubits”) to exist in multiple and interconnected states at one time, opens the door for highly parallel information processing with unprecedented new opportunities. Quantum computing could potentially be applied to solve important problems in fields such as cryptography, chemistry, medicine, material science, and machine learning that are computationally hard for conventional computers. Although it is still unclear which specific tasks can benefit from parallelized quantum processing, known as quantum parallelism, it is expected that solutions to a number of problems, especially those related to optimization, can be greatly accelerated by using a quantum computer.

Though the field is still in its early stages, the anticipated opportunities offered by the unique computational power of quantum computers have attracted investment from not only research universities, but also startups, technology giants like Google, IBM and Microsoft, and directed investment by governments around the world. This cross-sectoral ecosystem has supported recent progress in underlying hardware, software, and algorithms necessary to make the computers work. The field has seen rapid advancement, however systems that can accomplish various kinds of computation, and especially those that can be commercially viable, are still likely to be decades away. There are expected to be some near- term applications on the horizon though, making quantum computing as relevant as ever.

Currently, U.S. governance and regulation regarding quantum computing—a subset of the broader field of quantum information science, which also encompasses quantum communication and quantum sensing—focus on investments in the technical knowhow, collaborative research ecosystem, and human capital required to advance the technology. Given quantum computing’s potential for impact, especially in the fields of digital security, healthcare, energy, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, it is important for policymakers to understand the likely trajectories of the technology over the coming decades, as well as the pace of development both within the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, policymakers must consider how to effectively promote the development, application and implementation of general-purpose quantum technologies to realize their larger economic and social benefits, while simultaneously mitigating foreseeable risks to privacy, safety, security, and inclusion.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Iyer, Akhil. “Technology Factsheet: Quantum Computing.” Edited by Emma Rosenfeld, Mikhail Lukin and William Oliver. Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Spring 2020.

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