5 questions for QED-C’s Celia Merzbacher

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of the Future In Five Questions. This week I interviewed Celia Merzbacher, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium — a group funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that aims to boost the commercial quantum computing industry. We discussed the interconnected nature of scientific development and commercial application, how early chronometers influenced the way she thinks about quantum development, and, briefly, the tragedy of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows:

What’s one underrated big idea?

Use-inspired research.

“Blue sky” research, or when scientists go where the research takes them, is critical to advancing the frontiers of knowledge through discovery. However, some of the most impactful advances in fields from molecular biology to laser physics have been the result of “use-inspired research.” As described by Donald Stokes in his book “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” focusing research on problems that are important to specific sectors such as energy, medicine, computing, communications, transportation, etc., can produce step changes in science and technology that have enormous value to society as well as the economy. For those who do research, it can be motivating and exciting to work on problems that, if you find a solution, can have an enormous impact.

There are various institutions that focus on use-inspired research — including government agencies like DARPA, industry consortia like the Semiconductor Research Corporation, and independent research institutes like SRI [International, formerly the Stanford Research Institute, a nonprofit lab spun off from Stanford University in the 1970s]. In fact, at SRI, the mission is to create and deliver world-changing solutions for a safer, healthier, and more sustainable future — a mission that is enabled by use-inspired research.

What’s a technology that you think is overhyped?

At some point, every emerging technology goes through a “hype cycle.” Generative AI is currently at its peak. The question is, how quickly will it “mature” to become a tool or product that provides real value — in business, in how governments function, and in our daily lives? For example, the 2023 Gartner hype cycle for emerging technologies places generative AI at the top of the hype curve.

What book most shaped your conception of the future?

In the spirit of “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” I find lessons from history often shaping the way I think about the future.

A great example is the book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. It’s about a contest that was established in 1714 by the British government to give a substantial prize to the first person to demonstrate a practical method for determining the longitude of a ship at sea. It unleashed “problem solvers” across Europe to come up with solutions. Over four decades, John Harrison, a gifted carpenter, made innovations to chronometers (or clocks) to improve accuracy and ability to operate in an unstable environment on a ship, and he eventually won the prize.

This is a perfect example of “use-inspired” R&D. It also reveals how humans respond to a challenge that comes with a prize — whether that prize is money or being a part of a team that put a man on the moon. As we look at the hard problems facing the world today, such as energy, water, or climate, we can’t underestimate the power of government to focus bright minds toward allowing for innovation and creativity, with minimal “bureaucracy.”

Initiatives like the National Quantum Initiative are one way that the research enterprise can be focused on an area that has been identified as a priority. In the case of quantum, advances will impact science, the economy and national security. In order to ensure that stakeholders from all parts of the innovation ecosystem — from industry to government and researchers at universities and institutes like SRI — are engaged as part of the NQI, Congress called for a consortium to be created in 2018.

The Quantum Economic Development Consortium, which is managed by SRI, is that consortium. Funded by the National Institution of Science & Technology, QED-C aims to enable and grow the quantum industry and supply chain by supporting and engaging its members comprising 250 organizations from 20 countries.

What could government be doing regarding technology that it isn’t?

Quantum information science and technology is at a stage that needs government involvement to progress, in areas including quantum computing, sensing, networking, and more. Today, the U.S. National Quantum Initiative is investing heavily in fundamental research needed to advance quantum information science.

Last week, Congress introduced the National Quantum Initiative Reauthorization Act to extend the initiative and to expand its activities to include programs that will support innovation and development of practical applications. It also calls for a program that will support researchers’ access to quantum computers to explore applications and push the limits of current systems. The program is critical to helping the organizations that are building the hardware to provide real value and ultimately to succeed.

If passed, the next phase of NQI will leverage QED-C to provide more collaborations between industry and researchers and with international partners. QED-C is ready, willing, and able to support the NQI and the broader quantum ecosystem in order to accelerate the applications and benefits of quantum technologies.

What has surprised you the most this year?

On the technology front — generative AI for the masses. Otherwise, the outcome of the women’s soccer world cup.

Celebrity impersonators, your job security is on notice.

A series of short videos uploaded to a Russian-language Telegram channel recently purported to feature Tom Cruise railing against the unfairness and injustice perpetuated by the International Olympic Committee, accusing its president of “slowly and painfully destroying the Olympic sports that have existed for thousands of years.” Of course, as POLITICO’s Seb Starcevic reported this morning, it was not Tom Cruise, but an AI-generated deepfake of unknown provenance.

The IOC was successful in getting the videos removed from YouTube, but they remain on Telegram, along with a more recent fake purporting to feature an IOC spokesperson saying Israeli and Palestinian athletes will be barred from the 2024 Paris Olympics. The incidents follow closely on the heels of last month’s announcement that Russian and Belarusian athletes will only be allowed to compete in those games under a neutral flag.

A novel approach to nuclear power was scrapped in Idaho due to a lack of market interest.

POLITICO’s Hannah Northey reported in yesterday evening’s Power Switch newsletter on the failure to bring six modular nuclear reactors to the Gem State after a potentially $1.4 billion cost-sharing deal with the Department of Energy fell through when too few people subscribed for the service.

Eric Gimon, a senior fellow for think tank Energy Innovation, told Hannah the failure is “another notch towards the idea of ‘this is a bit more hype than reality’” and that the energy from the modular reactors, smaller reactors built in a factory, was too expensive. The technology could now be in trouble as some Republicans balk at its inclusion in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

Still, Hannah writes, many experts say unconventional approaches to renewable energy, like modular nuclear reactors, are necessary for the Biden administration to meet its ambitious climate goals. “This was never going to be easy,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), told Hannah. “We also need to realize that we need to innovate in this space and not all the startups are gonna make it.”