Microsoft, PNNL and UW leap into White House’s $1B initiative for AI and quantum research

·6 min read
Krysta Svore at AAAS meeting
Krysta Svore, who leads the Microsoft Quantum – Redmond group at Microsoft Research, explains how quantum computing hardware works at a Seattle science meeting in February. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington are playing supporting roles in the White House’s $1 billion effort to advance research into artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Those three organizations have already been working together through the Northwest Quantum Nexus to develop the infrastructure for quantum computers, which promise to open up new possibilities in fields ranging from chemistry to systems optimization and financial modeling.

The initiatives announced today are likely to accelerate progress toward the development of commercial-scale quantum computers, Chetan Nayak, Microsoft’s general manager for quantum hardware, said in a blog posting.

“Today marks one of the U.S. government’s largest investments in the field,” he said. “It is also a noteworthy moment for Microsoft, which is providing scientific leadership in addition to expertise in workforce development and technology transfer.”

Over the next five years, the U.S. Department of Energy will set aside up to $625 million to support five quantum computing research centers led by teams at the Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories. Contributions from the private sector and academia will add up to another $300 million.

Microsoft, PNNL and UW are among the partners in the Quantum Science Center, which is headed up by Oak Ridge and aims to address the tough scientific challenges surrounding quantum processing. In contrast to the sharply defined one-or-zero world of classical computing, quantum computers work with quantum bits, or qubits, which can reflect multiple values simultaneously.

Microsoft and PNNL are also part of the public-private consortium known as Q-NEXT, which is led by Argonne National Laboratory. Next Generation Quantum Science and Engineering will focus on building the infrastructure for quantum computing technology. (Boeing is also a Q-NEXT partner.)

Researchers from PNNL and UW are also partnering in the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, or C2QA, with Brookhaven National Laboratory taking the leading role. C2QA will focus on taking advantage of quantum phenomena for high-energy and nuclear physics, chemistry, materials science and other fields.

Microsoft is also represented on the external advisory board for the Quantum Science Accelerator, which is led by the Berkeley Lab in partnership with Sandia National Laboratory. The fifth DOE-funded center is the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center, led by Fermilab.

“Realizing the promise of quantum computing is beyond the capacity of any single institution, public or private,” PNNL Director Steven Ashby said.

“The power of these new quantum sciences centers lies in the partnerships that will be forged among the national laboratories, leading universities and other research institutions,” he said in a news release. “We are proud that PNNL scientists and engineers will participate in three centers, applying their expertise to the quest to build a reliable quantum computer and to use it to solve the most pressing problems in science and energy.”

How radiation affects quantum computers

Just today, researchers from PNNL and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed one of the challenges facing quantum computing.

In a paper published by the journal Nature, they reported that radiation from natural sources in the environment can limit the performance of superconducting qubits. Such radiation can emanate from earthly materials such as concrete, or rain down through the atmosphere in the form of cosmic rays.

“Our study is the first to show clearly that low-level ionizing radiation in the environment degrades the performance of superconducting qubits,” PNNL’s John Orrell, a study co-author and an expert in low-level radiation measurement, said in a news release. “These findings suggest that radiation shielding will be necessary to attain long-sought performance in quantum computers of this design.”

The newly published findings have immediate implications for qubit design and construction. For example, the researchers say the materials used to construct quantum computers should exclude material that emits radiation.

In addition, it may be necessary to shield experimental quantum computers from radiation in the atmosphere. That may make PNNL’s Shallow Underground Laboratory, which reduces surface radiation exposure by 99%, an attractive option for future quantum computer development.

The study could also influence the future course of research into the nature of dark matter, a mysterious constituent of the universe which is thought to be almost six times as plentiful as ordinary matter. One approach to detecting dark matter calls for using superconducting detectors with elements that are similar to qubits.

“Improving our understanding of this process may lead to improved designs for these superconducting sensors and lead to more sensitive dark matter searches,” said Ben Loer, a PNNL research physicist who is working both in dark matter detection and radiation effects on superconducting qubits.

Seven AI research centers created

In addition to the five quantum research centers, the $1 billion initiative establishes seven AI research institutes at universities across the country.

Working with other federal agencies, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will set aside $140 million over the next five years for these institutes:

  • NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate and Coastal Oceanography, led by a team at the University of Oklahoma at Norman.

  • NSF AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning, led by a team at the University of Texas at Austin.

  • NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming, led by a team at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

  • NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy and Manufacturing (or the NSF Molecule Maker Lab), led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • NSF AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions, led by a team at MIT.

  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, led by a team at the University of California at Davis.

  • USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management and Sustainability, led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The National AI Institutes being awarded today comprise large, multi-disciplinary and multi-sector collaborations,” Michael Kartsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, said in a news release. “They bring together consortia of dozens of universities and other organizations, ultimately spanning academia, government and industry.”

NSF is planning to create additional AI research institutes in the years ahead. The total value of the awards, including contributions from partner agencies, is expected to amount to more than $300 million by next summer.

More from GeekWire: