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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Hearing on Beyond Silicon Computing: Quantum and Molecular Computing

September 12, 2000

Science Committee Looks at Future of Computing

Ruzena Bajcsy, Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation, was lead off witness at a September 12 House Science Committee Hearing on "Beyond Silicon Computing: Quantum and Molecular Computing."

Dr. Bajcsy noted Richard Feynman's observation that "there is plenty of room at the bottom," referring to the research opportunities at the atomic and sub-atomic realm. The National Science Foundation is currently supporting a number of researchers who are exploring physical processes can be exploited as computing substrates - chemical, biomolecular, optical computing via photonics, and quantum systems.

While the U.S. currently funds about $30 million in research in quantum computing, this is up from about $1 million, only five years ago. Approximately half of the world's output of research in quantum computing is conducted in the U.S.

Dr. Laura Landweber, a Princeton University biologist who collaborates with physicists in her research on DNA computing, said that a quadrillion molecules, each functioning as a computer, could be contained in a glass of water.

Charles Bennett of IBM noted that applications exist for non-silicon based computing that we haven't even imagined yet. In order to realize advances, he said, we need to focus on stable support for long-term basic research of the type that only the Federal government is likely to support.

Dr. Timothy Havel of MIT and the Harvard Medical School, talked about the ability of quantum computing to handle very complex problems, particularly those whose solutions grew at an exponential rate.

Chairman Nick Smith pressed the panel for their visions of where this research would take us in 20 or 30 years. Witnesses suggested applications for non-silicon based computing, including cryptography, pharmaceutical development, protein folding, and data storage and mining. Dr. Bajcsy suggested that very small computers would provide portable devises that would enhance and extend of our sensory capabilities - the vision of an eagle, the olfaction of a dog, or the hearing of a rabbit.

Dr. Landwebber noted in closing that we need to support connections among researchers in chemistry, biochemistry, physics and mathematics and that the only way to do this is to encourage cross-disciplinary education at a young age.