Some of today’s math problems would take even the fastest computers in the world millions of years to solve. But Yale applied physics professors Michel Devoret and Robert Schoelkopf said they might be able to develop technology that could solve the same problems in a few hours. Science labs, businesses, and governments all want computers that work this fast.
But the army wants the technology first.
The technology is called quantum computing, and it is one of dozens of Yale research programs which are given grants by the Department of Defense or Department of Energy. Each year, these departments pour millions of dollars into Yale research programs, hoping to fuel the discoveries that keep America on the cutting edge of technology.
In theory, Schoelkopf said, quantum computing would use some unusual processes of quantum mechanics to produce much faster computers. Schoelkopf said even a rudimentary quantum computer is three to five years from completion — if it works at all.
“It’s a very futuristic research goal,” Deverot said. “With a quantum computer you would, in principle, be able to solve problems that would be impossible on a regular computer.”
The army, Schoelkopt said, is interested in using the technology for cryptology. Schoelkopf said that, with technology constantly advancing, current army encryption might only protect information for 10 or 20 years.
“They want codes that will last at least 50 years,” Schoelkopf said. “That’s kind of the time where I might be a kid working at the State Department and write an incriminating e-mail and in 50 years I might be the president of the United States.”
In 2002, the army gave Yale’s quantum computing programs almost $1 million for basic research.
Suzanne Polmar, the director of Yale’s office of grant and contract administration, said Yale is limited to doing unclassified basic research. The school does not do fundamental research, which has a specific military or industrial application. Other rules for accepting contracts exist as well.
“Yale will not accept classified research,” Polmar said. “Part of the role of a university is to spread and disseminate knowledge.”
Polmar said sponsors are sometimes given time to look at the research before it is published. The sponsor can also take out confidential information about itself, but not about the research.
An annual checkup
Two weeks ago, several representatives from the Department of Energy passed signs that read “Caution, high radiation” and stood in the massive room that houses Yale’s nuclear accelerator. They were there as part of an annual tour of the facility and a meeting with Yale research staff to make sure the studies of physics professor Richard Casten were on schedule. These yearly tours are common for grant programs.
Psychology professor Robert Sternberg, whose laboratory had its yearly visit from the army April 22, said the meetings are not intimidating.
“It’s no big deal,” Sternberg said. “They come and meet with us for a few hours. They give their comments and go away.”
Sternberg added that getting funding from the army was no different than any other sponsor.
“You don’t have to sign any loyalty oaths. None of that matters,” Sternberg said. “They really just want to know what kind of research you do.”
Sternberg’s army grant helps him study leadership and wisdom, qualities he said the army hopes will make a better soldier.
“One thing we are looking at is what makes someone a good leader,” Sternberg said. “[The military], like a business or anyone else, wants to know how people don’t get stuck thinking in individual ruts.”
Casten also downplayed the importance of the yearly reviews and said the Department of Energy seems happy with his work.
“There are two nuclear physics programs at Yale. Both of those have done quite well,” Casten said. “Our funding for the last seven years has grown substantially.”
But Casten said Yale’s experience is not the norm, as budget surpluses have turned to deficits and a war has begun. This year, the Bush administration has asked for a 4.9 percent reduction in the Department of Defense’s budget for science and technology programs, the American Institute of Physics reported.
Few facilities have had layoffs, Casten said, but many have cut back on operations. One facility in Berkeley, Calif., is slated to close, he said.
Polmar said cuts were a concern throughout the grant program.
“[Budget cuts are] a grave concern because we just don’t know what’s going to be in the particular budget for research,” Polmar said. “If they want a new tank, the money’s not going to come to Yale.”
Casten agreed that federal money is drying up, but he attributed the cuts to a different source.
“Funding is very, very tight,” Casten said. “It isn’t just the war. I think it’s generally the economy.”
Science for security
Even in times of belt-tightening, Casten said cutting the budget for his program would be a mistake.
“Basic science fuels technology which fuels the economy,” Casten said. “If the United States doesn’t stay ahead in technology, we’re going to lose out economically.”
Schoelkopf admitted that times are tight, but said he is confident his funding is secure at present.
“[The military had] already made commitments and they haven’t said anything that they wouldn’t honor those,” Schoelkopf said. “It may be harder to get new grants.”
Yale’s grant program has limited options if money is cut, because Yale has a policy against going to Congress directly to seek funding, Polmar said.
“We don’t seek pork,” she said. “We just feel that the project should be based on its own merit.”
The massive reconfiguration of the government for the new Department of Homeland Security initially caused some fears, Polmar said. Researchers worried that most of the research paid for by the department would be classified, and off-limits for Yale. But Polmar said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has assured them that as much research as possible would be unclassified.
Polmar said the Department of Homeland Security will actually be an opportunity for Yale professors to seek funding from another source.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what kinds of opportunities our faculty members will have to contribute to the safety and security of the country,” Polmar said.