• Sat. Dec 5th, 2020

How to Ensure the U.S.’s Quantum Future

Science knows no borders. Fundamental research, done by domestic or foreign talent, underpins progress and drives innovation—and ultimately, improves our lives. Continuing to attract foreign highly skilled scientists to the United States and retaining them is crucial for building a bright future that relies on emerging technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

We need these scientists—and we need them badly.

Over the years, foreign-born physicists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians, you name it, have been contributing greatly to the U.S. leadership in quantum and AI. Just look at IBM Research. IBM is an American company with a global footprint, and in the U.S. we have three research labs—in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Almaden, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass. Among our AI-skilled researchers, 58 percent are from abroad. In quantum computing, it’s a quarter of our workforce. And in cloud, another important area for us, it’s 55 percent of our research community.

I am the director of IBM Research. When I speak, I speak with an accent, just like all of my foreign-born colleagues. I was born in Spain and came to the U.S. as a teenager. I finished my last year of high school here in 1993, at Los Altos High near Palo Alto, Calif., and loved the country so much that I decided to stay. Ever since, I’ve been working to make America a better place to live, having graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science. I promised myself then to give my wit, education, dedication and passion to this country, my new home.

My case is far from unique. America has long been called the Land of Opportunity. But every individual opportunity yields dividends for the whole nation. Talent is the most critical resource in today’s knowledge economy. We must prioritize the development, attraction and retention of highly skilled workers. A declining birth rate, the ever-changing nature of work that increasingly demands STEM skills, and not enough STEM training at home—a problem we must urgently address—means the U.S. must remain a beacon to attract the best global talent. Nations that understand the importance of developing, attracting and retaining human capital will be uniquely positioned to create the best future and benefit from the advancements in science and technology.

Our world has not run out of problems to solve—from pandemics to climate change to creating economic opportunity for all. The urgency of science has never been greater.

Make no mistake. While emerging technologies like AI and quantum are absolutely crucial for our economy, society and the continuous progress of our country, it is top talent that makes the U.S. a world leader in these, and many other, areas. And it’s top talent that is in short supply. MIT’s President Rafael Reif put it quite bluntly in a recent New York Times opinion piece. “Why is foreign talent so important to the United States? For the same reason the Boston Red Sox don’t limit themselves to players born in Boston: The larger the pool you draw from, the larger the supply of exceptional talent,” he argued. “By challenging, inspiring and stretching one another, they make one another better, just as star players raise a whole team’s level of play.”

Take quantum. This technology of the near future is set to revolutionize the world of computing and will likely deeply impact our society and economy. Having been confined to research labs for years, it’s finally emerging as a nascent industry. For specific tasks, quantum computers promise to unlock processing power much superior to traditional, classical, computers. With continued progress, they should be able to perform calculations and generate simulations of unprecedented complexity at a fraction of the time it would take a classical computer. They should even be able to deal with problems a classical computer could never solve. The implications of quantum for security, chemistry, material design, financial markets, AI and machine learning are immense.

And now look at the people driving this quantum revolution in the U.S.; IBM, Google, Microsoft, Honeywell, Intel and startups like Rigetti and IonQ are all pursuing quantum computing research here in America. At IBM, among the foreign-born quantum researchers is the lead of our quantum program, IBM Fellow Jay Gambetta. An Australian, he has been working in quantum computing for 20 years, having come to the U.S. in 2004 to continue his research studies. He became a citizen last year.

When Gambetta first arrived in the U.S., quantum computing wasn’t yet mainstream. It was thanks to foreign-born, highly skilled researchers like him that this country has been able to emerge as a global leader in this crucial area. It was his quantum team, which included IBM Fellow Matthias Steffen—another immigrant and naturalized American—that in 2012 put IBM Research on the global experimental quantum computing map. They created stable superconducting qubits, the building blocks of quantum computers. And four years later, Gambetta and his colleagues became the first in the world to make quantum computers available globally and for free through the cloud—to anyone.

According to a 2019 report by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), more than 50 percent of computer scientists with graduate degrees currently employed in the U.S. were born abroad—and nearly 70 percent of enrolled computer science graduate students as well. The same report found, though, that the vast majority of this foreign-born talent wants to remain in the U.S. In AI-related fields specifically, around 80 percent of U.S.-educated Ph.D. graduates have stayed in the country—just like the 58 percent of foreign-born AI researchers that now work at IBM’s American labs.

These stats show that we should keep investing in our highly skilled citizens with vigor and ambition—be they naturalized citizens or citizens by birth. Economic opportunities abroad are rising, and it will soon be increasingly difficult to attract and retain these workers—the workers we so desperately need here in America. We must also consider the security of our research enterprise, particularly when it comes to the countries that do not share our democratic values, respect for human rights, and the rule of the law. But above all, investing in our citizens is simply the right thing to do, as it means we recognize and value the intrinsic potential of the talent present in every corner of our country. 

We also need to address the chronic underfunding of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—great scientific, economic and cultural drivers. They accomplish a lot with very modest investment. Just consider that although only about 9 percent of America’s Black students enroll in HBCUs, roughly 16 percent of all Black scientists and engineers are their graduates. Imagine what they could achieve with more funding.

Each year, more than 50,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science and related fields are awarded to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. It has been recommended to “staple” green cards to the diplomas of all foreign-born Ph.D.s who graduate in STEM from American universities. Similarly, we should award graduate fellowships to all U.S. undergraduate majors in computer science with GPAs above a certain level.

Our country and the world are full of talent. We should embrace diversity and foreign highly skilled workers as much as we embrace the emerging technology that they bring us. The skills and passion of our citizens and immigrants are the pillars of strength for advancing the scientific and technological leadership of our nation. As Avi Loeb, the chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University, has written in these very pages, science is an infinite-sum game. Diversity is our strength and competitive advantage. It is time to reset America’s commitment to science and to raise our level of ambition to ensure our country remains a beacon to, and the home of, the world’s best STEM talent.