Israel Joins Latest Arms Race: Quantum Computing

The Israeli quantum computer - intended for the defense establishment and tech scene - is a national security project to give Israel 'quantum’ independence: ‘We see China and U.S. racing’

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
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IBM's quantum computer. In the future, it is possible such computers will be a security asset that cannot be imported and Israel does not want to be left behind
IBM's quantum computer. In the future, it is possible such computers will be a security asset that cannot be imported and Israel does not want to be left behindCredit: IBM Research
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

Israel’s innovation and weapons research and development authorities will soon publish the first tender for building an Israeli quantum computer, as part of a massive project intended to give Israel “strategic capabilities” in the nascent field.

The project by the Israel Innovation Authority and the weapons and technological infrastructure research body will result in a computer owned by the state and will be funded with a budget of about 200 million shekels ($61.9 million). The goal is to establish a consortium of companies working together to build an Israeli quantum computer for research and development for the academic world, local high-tech industry and the security establishment.

The project is part of the national program for quantum science and technologies, which was launched about two years ago with a budget of 1.25 billion shekels, by members of the Telem forum – which consists of the innovation authority and the weapons and research development administration, known by its Hebrew acronym MAFAT, the planning subcommittee of the Committee for Higher Education, and the Finance Ministry.

The director of the national quantum program, Tal Dor, will soon be leaving his position for a new position in the private sector, and a search is now underway for a new director.

A quantum computer, based on the principles of quantum theory, is meant to provide much greater computer power than regular computers, including the strongest supercomputers current available.

Theoretically, in the future, tasks that would take a modern supercomputer thousands of years to complete, can be carried out with a quantum computer in a matter of hours, and sometimes even minutes. The idea is that such computing powers can revolutionize industries such as pharmaceutical development, discovery of new materials, development of sensitive sensors, hack-proof coding, simulations, financial calculations and more.

The supercomputers that now exist are very limited in their capabilities and are used mainly for research. The establishment of the infrastructure for quantum computation is considered a first step that will establish in Israel an independent foundation, knowledge and capabilities that will allow it to take part in the global quantum computation race – and prepare for a future in which sophisticated quantum computers will carry out real revolutions in industry as well as militarily and security-wise.

Two-pronged approach

The program will operate on two tracks. One, which will be led by the Innovation Authority, is to build a quantum computer within about a year with a processor of approximately 20 qubits. Qubits are the unit that such computers use. A request for information was published in the past to understand the existing ecosystem, needs and capabilities and in the coming month the authority is expected to publish a call for companies, startups and researchers to create a consortium for the project.

A quantum computer. Israel is now working on building a local version - and also laying the groundwork for a local quantum industryCredit: QUANTINUUM/Reuters

Because Israel has no entity or past knowledge in constructing such a computer from scratch, the expectation is that foreign companies with expertise in the field ( and there are a number of such companies abroad, such as IQM and IonQ) will participate to provide domain expertise.

Talks have already been held with a number of companies. The Innovation Authority says that it does not intend to purchase a “black box” model of quantum processors from these companies. What that means, is that Israel wants to develop the computer and the process itself, and not buy a ready-to-use product whose inner workings are known only to its creators.

The condition for participating in the project will be a requirement that foreign company establish an Israeli entity that will build the processor in Israel based on Israeli intellectual property in collaboration with Israel engineers. The goal will be the establishment in Israel of the knowledge needed to develop such technology locally – including training Israeli engineers.

In addition to a foreign company, Israeli startups that develop various peripheral technologies for quantum computers are expected to answer the call. In Israel there are only a few such companies, such as Quantum Machines, Classiq, Qedma, Lightsolver and others.

The computer can serve the needs of companies, researchers and military-security bodies that want to develop and experiment with quantum applications, algorithms and hardware. The infrastructure will make possible checks of existing algorithms and will be available for research and development at all levels of hardware and software.

No lag

The second track, which is being led by MAFAT, which will be implemented simultaneously with the first, is intended to establish Israeli knowhow and capabilities that in the future will allow it to build and fully operate a Israeli quantum computer, without reliance on foreign entities.

The reason for this is Israel’s concern that in the future advanced quantum computation will be considered a basic strategic-security element – a little like advanced weaponry – which won’t necessarily be able to be purchased from others.

The current concept, for example, is that a quantum computer will make possible powerful communication coding and operate navigation, radar and sensor systems that would be much stronger than those that now exist. Countries without such capabilities will lag behind both technologically and in terms of security.

MAFAT intends to establish a national quantum capabilities center with support from the academic and industrial spheres and the collaboration of the members of Telem. The center will deal with the variety of levels of development of the quantum processor, which include hardware, control, optimization, algorithmics, interface and other areas. The goal is to fully develop a quantum computer.

It is expected that the state will grant participating companies 140 million shekels and the rest will be put up by the companies, but the precise division has not yet been decided.

In the past, experts in the field said that the budget to build the computer was minimal, “like the monthly budget of one of the American companies that builds a quantum computer,” according to one specialist. However, the committee chaired by Orna Berry, established in 2018 to recommend a government program in quantum computation, said at the time that there was only a small chance that Israel would build a quantum computer that could compete in the global market.

Nonetheless, she said “Israel cannot allow itself to create an unbridgeable gap with regard to global developments.” It was also said that if Israel would not become a world leader in the field, it had to take part in the race, obtain knowhow and experience, as other countries might restrict the export of quantum technologies.

“There are two parallel and complementary actions here: One is to give the industry infrastructure that would allow it to approach a quantum computer, and at the same time to develop the knowhow in Israel to develop all the components of the quantum computer,” Dr. Aviv Zeevi, deputy director for technological infrastructure in the Innovation Authority, told Haaretz.

“We see a crazy race between China and the United States, which are investing billions in this field. We aren’t competing with this, but we are investing money wisely, developing specific knowledge so that the moment quantum computers become common, we will know how to lead from our side.

“From an economic perspective, this is a rising field and a trend in which a lot of money is being invested, and Israel can lead in certain areas. The more infrastructure we have that can access R&D capabilities, to the level of the qubit itself, the more successful we’ll be at finding places in which Israeli industry will lead. Another aspect is application: We want to make it possible for companies developing quantum applications in Israel to use a suitable processor,” Zeevi said.

Dr. Nadav Cohen, head of the science and technology unit at MAFAT added: “We believe that the quantum computer will constitute a strategic capability for countries, and a significant disadvantage to countries that don’t have one.

Dr. Nadav Cohen: 'We need to be able to build such technology ourselves'Credit: MAFAT

“Moreover, countries that don’t have a quantum computer will not necessarily be able to buy one. We know that even today, with technologies with strategic potential such restrictions exist. And so, if we don’t know how to build one by ourselves, we won’t have a quantum computer.” A

According to Cohen, “What is the interest of the security establishment? Many of the applications are dual. Materials development, for example, can also have civilian applications but there is also a security need in the construction of aircraft for example.”

The quantum computer is one of three major projects that the state is currently putting together for purchase or construction of powerful computers. In addition to the quantum computer, Israel is also working to build a high performance computer, at a cost of about 290 million shekels. Google and Amazon are also building data centers in Israel as part of the Finance Ministry’s Project Nimbus, to provide cloud services to the government and the army.

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