There are increasing numbers of universities, research teams and Silicon Valley investment capital directed to bringing quantum computing to fully functional fruition to solve real, and previously unsolvable, problems. But the road to achieving that goal is neither linear nor predictable.
As an essential and important milestone, Google recently claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy,” namely that it has built the first quantum computer that can carry out calculations beyond the ability of today’s most powerful supercomputers. Google claims its 54-qubit Sycamore processor performs a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years. Aside from Google, technological giants such as IBM, Microsoft, Intel and others are looking at how to advance this technology. At the same time, they are staking patent claims to their innovations by filing the most patent applications.
After analyzing over 5000 patent applications, RS Components has reported that in the last decade, quantum computing patent applications have increased from only 12 annual applications to nearly 560 in 2018, marking an ever increasing effort by the companies to stake claims. This number is expected to rise further. More specifically, in terms of who is leading the patent race, the report found that Microsoft has the greatest number of patent applications, with 425. As a scalable quantum system, Microsoft introduced the “Azure Quantum,” which is an open cloud ecosystem that will bring the benefits of quantum computing to people and organizations across the world.
As for the other major companies in the race, IBM is second with 296 patent applications, Intel third with 242 patent applications and Google fourth with 125.
IBM and Amazon are working on implementing quantum computing in connection with their cloud services. As noted elsewhere in this blog, the question of whether any particular patent application will mature into a commercially valuable patent is uncertain. But it is certain that that some of the pending patent applications will result in groundbreaking patents. It should also be noted that the race for quantum leadership is not a sprint, but rather a long race, the outcome of which will not be determined for years, if not decades. Quantum technology still has many technical problems to solve before it can reach practical application and its full potential. For that reason, it is hard to predict when a significant quantum breakthrough will occur.
It is sometimes the case that two patent owners have “blocking” patents, both of which may be necessary to make a commercial product. When that happens, they may grant each other cross-licenses to their respective patented technologies so they can commercialize their respective inventions. Although this would allow the two patent owners to compete against each other in the market, no one else could enter that market with an infringing products because of the patents. A patent may also have defensive value. Two competitors may have products that infringe each other’s patents but, even in the absence of a license, neither is willing to sue the other for infringement because they would be sued by the other in return.
Although it is better to be a patent owner than to be patent-less, the situation is not dire or hopeless for an accused infringer who has no patent.
A patent covers only what the claims of the patent recite. So a patent may not apply, even if the patent (but not the claims) broadly describes the same technology. It’s like a person who walks down the street in front of a house to reach a destination, but is not a trespasser unless she walks on the lawn. It is also possible for someone who is infringing a patent to modify its product to avoid infringement – a process called “designing around a patent,” which is often available, particularly for electrical and mechanical technology. By analogy, if a person is walking on the lawn, she can simply “design around” the trespass by walking on the street instead, and still reach her destination. Indeed, a product that has been designed differently to avoid a patent may actually be better than the patented product. In our analogy, the person who is forced to walk on the street instead of on the lawn to avoid trespassing may find that she will arrive at her destination at the same time, without getting her shoes muddy.
Many analysts, researchers, politicians and military leaders believe the United States has allowed China to take the lead in many areas of quantum research. When quantum technology matures, it will have a profound effect on almost every facet of life. For example, a Chinese lead in quantum science could tilt the future strategic military balance in their favor. Over the past few years, China has aggressively stepped up its efforts in quantum research and development.
In 2016, President Xi Jinping established a national strategy for China to become technologically self-reliant. One of China’s main goals is to surpass the United States and to become the global high-tech leader. As part of this, China funded a multi-billion-dollar quantum computing mega-project with the expectation of achieving significant quantum breakthroughs by 2030. China also committed billions to establish a Chinese National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. This center may eventually become a global hub for quantum research and a magnet for future quantum research talent. Given the opacity of the link between Chinese academic research and its military industrial complex, the pace of filing patent applications in China is not easily determinable, but we can be sure that China’s hefty R&D push will bear fruit.
Quantum USA vs Quantum China
As a result of the huge investments by U.S.tech giants— IBM, Google, Intel and Microsoft —the U.S. has maintained its lead in quantum computing. In 2018, IBM obtained more patents than any other U.S. company.
Almost half of its patents are for leading-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and blockchain.
Google recently achieved quantum supremacy by solving a problem in 200 seconds that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years to solve. The consensus view is that the US retains a strong lead in quantum computation, with other important centers being Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, Singapore and Israel.
US National Quantum Initiative
In December 2018, President Trump signed H.R. 6227 to fund the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI). The law authorizes $1.2 billion to be invested in quantum information science over five years. This funding is earmarked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Science Foundation (NSF) Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education and to the Department of Energy Research and National Quantum Information Science Research Centers. Although these actions are small compared to the Chinese investments in quantum research, combined with private capital they should provide further inducement for U.S. companies to generate innovations and to stake intellectual property claims in the quantum computing field. We are sure to see increasing filings of patent applications as quantum computing technology develops, and ultimately matures. As patents issue, they can provide great benefits to patent owners, and great challenges to others. But having a patent is no guaranty of success. And having no patents is no guaranty of failure.