Israel Gets Ready to Join Global Quantum Computing Race

A government panel is calling for $350 million to be spent on a 6-year program to make the country a key player in a hot new technology field

IBM's quantum computer.
IBM Research

Israel is joining the global quantum computing race with a program to accelerate research and development and industry in the field.

In doing so, Israel will be competing with giants like China, Britain and Germany, which have each budgeted programs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A host of smaller countries have also entered the competition, among them Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore, which are also investing heavily in quantum computing.

As Prof. Roee Ozeri of the Weizmann Institute defines it, quantum mechanics is “the operating system of the very small things,” such as molecules, atoms and photons. They operate in different ways than in the world of “big things,” so for example a microscopic particle can be found in two places at the same time.

Israel’s program calls for 1.2 billion shekels ($350 million) of spending over six years. Most of the funding will come from the existing budgets of the Council of Higher Education, the Defense Ministry’s Research, Arms Development and Technological Infrastructure Administration, and academic institutions. The government itself will kick in just 190 million shekels in new funds over the six years.

The program began to take shape two years ago. Prof. Uri Sivan of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology chaired a committee that mapped the strengths and weaknesses of the Israel’s quantum technology R&D. The committee’s conclusions, submitted to the CHE in February 2018, pointed to a considerable lag and insufficient funding.

Meanwhile, breakthroughs in quantum computing globally added urgency to the drive in Israel to become a serious competitor. A second panel, led by former Chief Scientist Orna Berry, went a step further, looking into where Israel was behind and what role the government should take.

Its conclusions, issued at the end of October, were clear: Israel must act now on quantum computing.

“It’s expected that this field will play a key role in the array of advanced technology driving the world over the coming decades,” the committee said in its report. “Israel, as the Startup Nation, cannot continue to advance technologically to meet its needs and goals without an immediate national effort to turn the country into a power in artificial intelligence and quantum technology. Without them, we will reach a technology dead end.”

The recommendations are now waiting for the government to act on them by agreeing to fund its share of the program.

On the basis of quantum mechanics, it’s possible to construct a nonbinary quantum computing unit (i.e. one not limited to 0 or 1). The so-called qubit’s computational ability, which enables it to be in several states simultaneously in an almost infinite number of positions and combinations, far exceeds anything that exists today.

“The view is emerging that many fields of quantum theory will yield new applications that have a significant impact on civilian industry and defense in the coming years and decades," the committee report said. “If quantum computing becomes a reality, it is likely to affect almost every segment of civilian industry: pharmaceuticals, energy, space and more.”

Other countries' commitment

Other countries have recognized this. Canada, for instance, has budgeted $1.6 billion over five years, Germany $780 million and China a reported $2.4 billion. The European Union has a Quantum Technologies Flagship program to which $1.1 billion has been allocated, a number that is due to be tripled.

Universities and companies are in the race, too. Among the latter, the competition between IBM and Google has been particularly noteworthy, but the other giants, like Microsoft, Intel and Airbus have joined in as well.

The Israeli committee didn’t find any data on the extent of business investments, but the combined investment is believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Google alone has a team of 100 people working in quantum computing.

The Israeli committee concluded that the odds are poor that Israel itself can build a quantum computer that could compete globally.. Only the world’s giants have the resources to do so. Nevertheless, Israel shouldn’t give up from the start and should develop quantum computing capabilities. “Israel can’t allow an unbridgeable gap with global development to be created.”

A 'threshold' country

The goal, it said, is for Israel to become a “threshold country” by exploiting its comparative advantages in developing applications for quantum computing and peripheral hardware that do not require huge budgets. Other potential areas of interest are quantum sensing and quantum materials.

Even if Israel is not a global leader in quantum computing, it must join the race, and acquire knowledge and experience – if for no other reason than that many countries may impose restrictions on exporting quantum technology.

The committee’s emphasis is on human capital, which it said would require an eight-year effort to develop. Right now quantum technology in Israel is at the stage of science, not at the stage of engineering, so that investment in human capital should be in academic research initially. After six years, the focus will move from academe to industry, it proposes.

The committee also recommends that Israel establish essential capabilities in quantum hardware.

“We believe that within the framework of the resources being planned, the hardware that will be developed in Israel in the coming years will stumble in the face of the hardware developed on the global front of quantum computing, but the very existence of an active hardware development effort will ensure manpower training, knowledge creation and technology development that allows us to progress quickly if there is a breakthrough in quantum computing,” the panel concluded.

The main obstacle to getting the program underway is the absence of a permanent Israeli government that can authorize a multiyear budget. Until there is one – a prospect that could be months away if Israel goes into third elections – only part of the funding can be allocated now.