(Bloomberg) — Chicago is banking on quantum — a technology that could ensure everything from email to online shopping is 100% secure — to fuel future economic growth. But there’s still work to be done before the city realizes its dream of becoming the nation’s capital for the promising technology.
Best known for traditional industries like food, agriculture and manufacturing, the Windy City has sought to attract investment from the likes of Google Inc. and Amazon.com as it shifts its focus to quantum, which promises to make internet communications unhackable make.
Illinois already gets 40% of all federal dollars for the technology and has four of the country’s 10 quantum centers, the most of any state. But to be at the forefront of quantum development, the city must focus on translating science into businesses and jobs, said Brad Henderson, chief executive officer at P33, a nonprofit founded by former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
“We have a top-five science environment and aren’t even in the top 10 for translating science into business,” he said. “We are aiming for an annual GDP in the tens of billions, which we expect in 10 years. That’s our goal. And tens of billions of dollars actually mean thousands of jobs.”
University of Chicago scientists last week conducted the first public test of the quantum network in the United States, an event that coincided with a surprise visit from former President Barack Obama.
“Quantum computing is the way of the future,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an event hosted by the Executive Club of Chicago. “Forty cents of every federal dollar spent on quantum computing is spent in and around Chicago. This is the next big thing in our economy.”
Chicago has attempted to prop up its struggling finances by paying required contributions to all of its severely underfunded pensions in 2022 for the first time ever. The quantum bet is still a few years away, but it could spur economic growth as production continues to waste.
The idea that properties of quantum mechanics could be used to build a new kind of computer was first propagated in the 1980s by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Unlike traditional computers, which interpret data in “ones” and “zeros,” quantum machines can store information in multiple forms—ones, zeros, both, or something in between.
This ability allows a quantum system to multitask in ways that today’s binary gear cannot, rapidly reducing processing times. But while computers with these capabilities are still about a decade away from widespread commercial application, quantum communications could become available much sooner, according to consultants McKinsey & Co.
That’s where Chicago excels. The third largest US city already has the longest quantum network in the country – 200 kilometers long, connecting the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory on the outskirts with the University of Chicago and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a center for the advancement of quantum technology.
“There’s this misconception that quantum is only found on the West or East Coast,” said Marco Pistoia, head of global applied technology research at JPMorgan Chase & Co., which joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange in 2020 as a partner. “In fact, Chicago is a big center for quantum.”
The financial industry, another pillar of Chicago, will be one of the biggest beneficiaries. Quantum computing will help algorithms sort through large amounts of data and solve complex mathematical problems that would take traditional machines days, months and even years to solve.
Long before that, quantum communications will solve a more fundamental problem: how do you make sure nobody can clone your 16-digit credit card number when you buy something online? Or retrieve your email and social media passwords?
Quantum communication guarantees that every intercepted message is destroyed, said David Awschalom, vice dean for research at the Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and founding director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. So not only will a hacker not be able to obtain the information, but the parties to the attempted hack will know that someone tried to intercept them.
“It’s burned into the fundamental aspects of quantum science, so it’s a great thing for communication,” Avshalom said in an interview. “Not a great thing if you’re a hacker, but a great thing for communications because it’s quantum-proof.”
The technology could also be used to make elections more secure. Switzerland has used what is known as quantum key distribution to protect its local elections. It’s this technology that students at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy High School tested last week in a poll on the question: Should social media companies be allowed to censor information/misinformation?
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“Knowledge is power,” Obama told the students. “When you know how to separate good information from bad information, you have more power to make good decisions that get you where you want to be.”
Chicago and other cities around the world are facing a huge talent gap. Demand for workers outstrips graduates by more than three times, according to McKinsey, which compared active job postings as of December 2021 to the number of graduates willing to fill such positions.
Keomi Brame, 16, said she had heard a few things about quantum but after the mock vote she would now consider it a possible career path.
“After today, I understand why it’s so important,” she said. “It can make processes around the world a lot easier, especially when it comes to security, because it makes it harder for people to hack.”
Another challenge for Chicago is that the biggest employers — IBM, Amazon, and Google — are still on the coast. Venture capital is also focused on computers, while Illinois’ biggest competitive advantage is in materials, sensors, and the quantum network. Still, the city has bought quantum hardware company EeroQ Corp. dressed.
“Chicago is just one of those places where people have gathered enough resources and recruited a lot of talent to advance quantum science,” said Jun Ye, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. But there’s also Colorado, California and Cambridge, where Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are doing a “huge amount” of quantum work, he said.
Quantum technology is also a source of geopolitical tensions. The Biden administration is exploring the possibility of new export controls that would restrict China’s access to some of the most powerful new computing technologies, including quantum, Bloomberg reported last week.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who is seeking re-election next month, has already committed $200 million to Quantum, but more is needed. The city and state also need to avoid past mistakes and focus on attracting businesses, startups and building a quantum industry, said Henderson of P33, whose nonprofit organization was founded by the governor’s sister.
To achieve this, P33 created the Quantum Cohort to bring research and industry together. It also helped launch Chicago-based Duality, the country’s first accelerator program dedicated solely to supporting early-stage quantum companies, which counted Amazon.com as their first investor.
“We believe Chicago can be the Quantum Valley of the United States, there’s no reason it can’t,” Avshalom said. “Every federal agency, everyone funds programs here.”
–Assisted by Hugo Miller, Amy Thomson and Dina Bass.
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