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Sen. Maria Cantwell and MIcrosoft President Brad Smith
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Microsoft President Brad Smith discuss the challenge of quantum computing during a fireside chat at the Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The Pacific Northwest may be known for tech icons like Microsoft and Amazon  but when U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was asked what advice she’d give to the researchers and executives who are trying to up their game when it comes to quantum computing, she invoked a slogan used by a totally different kind of industry leader.

“To borrow from another Northwest icon, ‘Just Do It,’ ” she said, referring to Nike, the Oregon-based sportswear powerhouse.

During today’s fireside chat with Microsoft President Brad Smith at the kickoff summit of a public-private consortium called the Northwest Quantum Nexus, Cantwell said quantum computing could become as much a part of the Pacific Northwest’s tech scene as Boeing and Microsoft, Amazon and Blue Origin.

Quantum computing is a fuzzy approach to number-crunching that’s totally different from the classical data processing methods that have ruled the tech world for decades. Researchers haven’t yet created a universal quantum computer, but Vancouver, B.C.-based D-Wave Systems is already selling access to a cloud-based system that makes use of quantum principles. Microsoft, meanwhile, is aiming to have its own quantum stack up and running within the next five years.

Cantwell and Smith acknowledged that relatively few folks in the general public are keyed into what computer scientists call “the quantum advantage” — that is, the ability of quantum computation to solve problems in chemistry, materials science and other fields that simply can’t be addressed by classical computers. Smith even wondered whether Cantwell’s colleagues in the Senate were able to keep up.

“In some ways, the first test of whether a topic will resonate with the general public is whether people can reach the members of the House and Senate,” Smith mused.

“Is that supposed to be funny?” Cantwell deadpanned.

Cantwell, who worked as a tech executive at Real Networks before her election to the Senate in 2000, said members of the general public aren’t likely to get excited about quantum computing until they see its applications come to life — for example, in the form of exotic materials for super-efficient power storage batteries.

“We’re so close on some of the renewables, yet we need to solve the storage problem to really make it work,” she said.

The fact that the payoff may be a long time coming doesn’t mean entrepreneurs should back away from the frontier, she said.

“What you can’t predict is how fast breakthroughs are going to happen. … Unleash it, just do it, unleash that, and my guess is we’ll be pretty surprised at what people can accomplish,” Cantwell said.

Previously: Newly formed Northwest Quantum Nexus unites pioneers on the wild frontier of computing

Cantwell and other policymakers are already “doing it” by following through on the National Quantum Initiative Act, which sets aside $1.2 billion over the next five years to boost quantum information science.

The senator, who serves as the ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said that funding will now have to go through the appropriations process to identify specific programs to receive the money. The legislation calls for creating at least two National Quantum Information Science Research Centers, and one of the Northwest Quantum Nexus’ objectives may well be to bring one of those centers to our neck of the woods.

Cantwell acknowledged that the $1.2 billion pales in comparison with the $10 billion-plus that China is talking about putting into quantum research.

“Are we going to spend as much as the Chinese? No, I don’t think we’re going to spend as much as the Chinese, but I think we’ll spend enough so that the people here in the United States can work collaboratively to get this done,” she said.

Working collaboratively could well be one of the Pacific Northwest research community’s greatest strengths. The newly formed Northwest Quantum Nexus serves as an example: Microsoft, the University of Washington and the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are spearheading the initiative, but the more than 400 people who registered for this week’s summit at UW also include representatives of the region’s other universities as well as Boeing, Vulcan, Google and other tech companies. (No one from Nike, though.)

“There’s so much collaboration in the Northwest, and I guess that’s what really makes me excited. … There’s so much innovation, but if you can’t implement it, then what’s the point?” Cantwell said. “One thing that we’re really good at here in the Pacific Northwest is, obviously we believe in science, and the fact that we collaborate very well across a lot of different disciplines to make those things work .”

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