South Dakota striving to be a leader in quantum computing

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Four public South Dakota universities would start offering research and training in an emerging field of technology that promises to solve complex problems in minutes instead of years, if lawmakers approve a $6 million plan.

Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University in Madison is leading the charge to put the state at the forefront in quantum computers, which are far faster and more capable than any of the largest, most complex supercomputers already in use.

"We need to be in the game. And if we don't do this, when the federal monies start to flow for grants and contracts, we will miss out," she said. "If we don't have that basic introductory experience and expertise, then people are not going to come to us."

The entire push for a new Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at DSU begins with a proposed $6 million state appropriations bill now under consideration by the South Dakota Legislature, Griffiths said.

The money won't buy a new building or even come close to affording an actual quantum computer, which in its early form costs up to $15 million and requires an extremely cold environment in which to operate.

Instead, the money would largely be used over four years to fund a handful of new faculty positions and graduate student slots at DSU, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and South Dakota State University in Brookings.

The funding measure, Senate Bill 45, had its first hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 25 and passed on a 6-0 vote to move ahead to the Appropriations Committee.

The bill saw support from university leaders, the Sioux Falls and South Dakota chambers of commerce and Elevate Rapid City. Lawmakers asked questions about the technology and its possible uses, the timing of development of quantum computers and if more state funding would be needed later to support the quantum center in the future.

Sen. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, said he is confident DSU officials will be able to obtain outside investment to move the quantum program forward, and he voted to approve the $6 million expenditure.

“It’s exciting,” Pischke said.. “I don’t know where the future lies but I think this is something we should invest in.”

Griffiths refers to the initial investment as "seed money" to get the state positioned and recognized as an early leader in the field of quantum computers, which experts say will contain the capacity to quickly run equations, manage and manipulate data and solve problems that might take modern supercomputers many years to solve, if ever. 

The technology is rapidly evolving but is still a few years away from wider, practical usage, Griffiths said. The $6 million investment would show the federal government and companies like IBM or Honeywell that the South Dakota university system is a network they can rely on for new research, collaborations and education of future employees in a field expected to create tens of thousands of new high-paying jobs.

Gov. Kristi Noem shared her support for a quantum computer center during her annual state budget address in December.

“We have an exciting new opportunity for the jobs of the future,” Noem said. “For too long, our kids were moving out of South Dakota to access exciting tech jobs.”

As the power of computers grows, and as artificial intelligence plays a larger role in global society and economies, some scientists are urging caution in how these advanced technologies could be used either with intentional nefarious motives or by mistakes that manifest in negative outcomes.

Survey results from the Pew Research Center in August showed that 52% of Americans are more concerned than excited about artificial intelligence.

DSU already has established a 20-year track record of research and teaching in the field of cyber technology, which includes computer science and the new, rapidly expanding field of cybersecurity.

In 2022, DSU announced it will take the lead role in development of 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 lab that will create several hundred jobs and be a leader in the fields of technology and cybersecurity.

The quantum science center is the logical next step in the evolution of the university's mission, according to Ashley Podhradsky, vice president for research and economic development at DSU.

Partly as a result, the university has seen an increase in outside funding opportunities and internal growth, Griffiths said. 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.

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.

When it comes to quantum, Griffiths and Podhradsky said the university has already heard from corporations, universities and government contractors exploring future partnerships with DSU due to its track record on cyber research and simply the announcement of the proposed quantum center. A possible partnership with a university in Australia is in the works.

"It's the foundation that we're developing for future partnerships," Podhradsky said. "They're looking at it initially as a strategic advancement, as a defining factor to differentiate their capabilities from others. And if we're able to secure that for them here in South Dakota, that makes our partnership that much more valuable to them."

Griffiths hopes the Legislature sees the value in the proposed $6 million appropriation for the quantum science center and approves the money so universities can immediately begin recruiting faculty and student researchers to build the momentum built for the future.

"We want to say, ‘Let's get the expertise ready.’ And we're doing it in a shared way across four institutions, which I believe is the way to go. And then we will attract interest,” Griffiths said. "I just think that we have a real opportunity here, and if we stop, we won't be ready when the time comes. And we'll miss the whole thing."

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.