Four public colleges in South Dakota are set to begin offering research and training in an emerging area of technology that holds the potential to solve complex issues in minutes instead of years, pending the approval of a $6 million plan by lawmakers.
Josie-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., is spearheading efforts to position the state at the forefront of quantum computers, which are much faster and more capable than the largest, most complex supercomputers currently in use.
“We need to be involved in this. And if we don’t take action, we’ll miss out when federal funding for grants and contracts starts to flow. Without the necessary expertise and experience, people won’t come to us,” she emphasized.
The drive for a new Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at DSU commences with a proposed $6 million state appropriations bill currently being considered by the South Dakota Legislature, according to Griffiths.
The funding will not cover the cost of a new building or the acquisition of an actual quantum computer, as the early versions cost up to $15 million and require an extremely cold environment for operation.
Instead, the money will primarily be used over four years to support a few new faculty positions and graduate student openings at DSU, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D., the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, S.D., and South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.
Goal of ‘seed money’ is to be an early leader in quantum computers
Griffiths refers to the initial funding as “seed money” to position the state and establish itself as an early leader in the field of quantum computers.
These machines will have the capability to rapidly process equations, manage and manipulate data, and solve problems that could take modern supercomputers many years to solve, if ever. Griffiths suggested that quantum computers could be used to forecast weather, develop new medications and vaccines, create new materials and products, as well as enhance national security and defense.
“Quantum computing is a completely new form of computation that’s evolving but leverages the capabilities of quantum physics and quantum mechanics, which involve subatomic particles,” Griffiths explained in an interview with News Watch. “Essentially, it will exponentially increase the power and speed of computers and be able to tackle problems that even all the supercomputers in the world combined today cannot solve. And it will solve these problems in minutes and hours, as opposed to decades.”
The technology is rapidly advancing but still a few years away from broader practical usage, according to Griffiths.
With the $6 million investment, the intent is to demonstrate to the federal government and major companies such as IBM or Honeywell, leaders in the quantum field, that the South Dakota university system is a network they can count on for new research, collaborations, and the education of future employees in a field anticipated to create tens of thousands of new high-paying jobs.
Strong support from Gov. Kristi Noem
The $6 million funding proposal originates from the South Dakota Board of Regents, and Gov. Kristi Noem expressed her support for a quantum computer center during her annual state budget speech in December.
“We have an exciting new opportunity for the jobs of the future,” Noem remarked. “For too long, our kids were moving out of South Dakota to access exciting tech jobs.”
Noem highlighted the wide-ranging applications of quantum computers, including cybersecurity, agriculture, and health care. She stressed that the state could utilize the funding to establish itself as a leader in the emerging field.
“Our universities will be on the cutting edge of quantum computing,” Noem remarked. “This is our fastest-growing industry, and South Dakota is making it a reality.”
Legislation for the funding, Senate Bill 45, has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee, and an initial hearing was scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 25.
While DSU would take a leading role in developing the quantum computer center, the $6 million would also be used to cover new professors and graduate student positions at the four universities, as well as travel, training, and the use of quantum computer simulators outside the state, Griffiths stated.
The South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City is already engaged in research on one aspect of quantum computers.
The National Science Foundation recently awarded researchers at Mines an $800,000 grant to explore the use of two-dimensional layers of materials that can function as small switches or storage sites to hold memory in quantum computers. Mines is also part of a multi-university project, known as the MonArk Quantum Foundry, with the aim of developing 2D materials for quantum computers.
“It provides an opportunity to spawn new businesses and high-tech jobs in South Dakota,” Mines president Jim Rankin mentioned in an October 2023 press release.
New technology, new concerns
As computer power increases and artificial intelligence takes on a greater role in global society and economies, some scientists are advising caution about how these advanced technologies could be used, either intentionally with malicious motives or due to errors resulting in negative consequences.
These concerns are echoed by a growing portion of the American public, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center.
Survey results published by Pew in August showed that 52% of Americans are more concerned than excited about the rising use of artificial intelligence technologies, an increase of 14 percentage points from a study done just six months earlier. Pew also found that as people learn more about AI, their concerns rise rather than fall.
A recent Federal Trade Commission report further delved into the concerns experts have about AI, ranging from copyright infringement and misuse of biometric and personal data to the intentional or accidental introduction of bias or inaccuracy in AI-related programs and products.
An article from November 2022 by the Forbes Technology Council, while acknowledging myriad potential positive outcomes of quantum computers, also outlined 13 concerns about their potential uses.
“While quantum has the potential to solve incredibly complex problems in society today, it will be equally capable of being used maliciously by nation-states in warfare,” Forbes asserted. “The power of quantum computing can be leveraged for bad purposes as well as good. And even when organizations have the best intentions, there are potential downsides that must be considered.”
The article also urged those at the forefront of quantum technologies to begin considering how to manage or avoid negative outcomes before the technology ever reaches wide use.
“From security risks to environmental and social costs, the possible risks of the rapid growth of quantum computing must be considered, and governments and industries must begin the work of devising solutions,” the article stated.
DSU already leading in cyber technology
DSU has already established a 20-year track record of research and teaching in the field of cyber technology, which includes computer science and the rapidly expanding field of cybersecurity.
In 2019, the university opened Madison Cyber Labs, a 40,000 square-foot facility that focuses on advancing technology education at the K-12 and college levels, spurring economic development and innovation, and furthering research in the cyber and computer arenas.
In 2022, DSU announced that it will take the lead in developing a $90 million expansion of cyber education and research through its Applied Research Lab, which includes a facility in Madison and a planned Sioux Falls, S.D., lab that will create several hundred jobs and be a leader in the fields of technology and cybersecurity.
The university has formed a private corporation to lead the lab and its programs, which are expected to attract funding from private companies, the federal government, and the military. The Sioux Falls lab is funded by a $50 million donation from philanthropist Denny Sanford, $30 million from the state, and $10 million from the city of Sioux Falls.
The university has consolidated its cyber education and research efforts into what it calls the “Cyber 27 Initiative,” a five-year plan comprised of seven distinct “pillars” to position DSU “the top cyber program in the country,” according to the university website.
A quantum science center is the next logical step in the evolution of the university’s mission, according to Ashley Podhradsky, vice president for research and economic development at DSU.
“If you take a look at the timeline, you can see how we started with computer science, and that went into cybersecurity, and the evolution of that is going into quantum,” Podhradsky mentioned in an interview. “And if we don’t establish this center, we cannot maintain the same pace of growth that we are currently experiencing and will be stunted in our potential here.”
Partially as a result, the university has experienced an increase in outside funding opportunities and internal growth, Griffiths mentioned. DSU also has bucked the recent trend of declining enrollment at state universities that have seen slow, steady declines in attendance. DSU‘s total enrollment last fall was 3,509, an increase of 8.3% over 2022.
Quantum Science Center a window of opportunity
As an example of how state investment in research can lead to greater outside funding, Podhradsky noted that a 2020 state appropriation of $400,000 for the Cyber Incubator and Entrepreneurial Center at DSU has since led to more than $2 million in external sponsorships for the university.
Regarding quantum computing, Griffiths and Podhradsky noted that the university has already received interest from corporations, universities, and government contractors exploring potential collaborations with DSU due to its track record in cyber research and simply the announcement of the proposed quantum center. Discussions of a possible partnership with a university in Australia are ongoing.