Germany Makes Massive Quantum, Neuromorphic Investment

One of Germany’s foremost scientific research centers, Jülich Forschungszentrum, will receive a €36-million infusion of government funding to advance quantum and neuromorphic computing technologies.

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research will ante up about €32.4 million for the joint effort, while the remaining €3.6 million will be kicked in by the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state where the Jülich Research Center is located.

One of the primary drivers for the research work into these two emerging technologies is based on their potential roles in the area of artificial intelligence, s technology that that has attracted the interest of practically every government and company on the planet. The AI connection is most obvious in the case of neuromorphic computing, which is specifically designed to mimic the processes of biological brains and do so with modest power consumption. Energy efficiency is actually a critical element of this technology, since some of its intended use is for applications in robots and other intelligent mobile devices.

Internationally, a number of neuromorphic research efforts are already underway, including two long-standing projects: IBM’s TrueNorth initiative, which we recently delved into here, and SpiNNaker, a University of Manchester-led project that began in 2005. More recent work includes Intel’s Loihi neuromorphic platform, Stanford University’s Neurogrid board, and BrainChip’s Akida chip.

Germany, and Europe more generally, have also done some investment in this area. The most notable work there is being driven by the EU’s Human Brain Project’s Neuromorphic Computing Platform, which has helped to fund the University of Heidelberg’s BrainScaleS work and the aforementioned SpiNNaker effort.

The new funding for Jülich in this area looks to be directed toward more basic research. In this this case, the initial effort will be focused on developing a structural and functional mapping of the human brain, the idea being to provide the basis for a new neuromorphic architecture, as well as for expanding scientists’ understanding of brain function and pathologies. The work will be headed Prof. Katrin Amunts, Director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. She and her team are also working with an unnamed “international technology company” in the machine learning space to support this effort.

The quantum computing research work should yield benefits in the AI application space as well but is also expected to be applied to a more general category of problems. Specifically, quantum mechanical entanglement in these types of systems makes it possible for them to solve certain types of optimization problems that are beyond the scope of even the world’s largest supercomputers. Typical applications include encryption, computational chemistry, and supply chain logistics, to name just a few.

The quantum computing research effort will be undertaken by a team of scientists headed by Prof. Kristel Michielsen from the Jülich Supercomputing Center (JSC). Scientists there are not unfamiliar with the technology, having demonstrated a simulation of a 48-qubit quantum computer on the Chinese Sunway TaihuLight and the Japanese K, two of most powerful supercomputers in the world. At the time, they claimed this quantum computing simulation was a world record. Subsequent simulations by IBM Research, at 56 qubits, the University of Melbourne at 60 qubits, and Quantum Computing Company Limited, at 64 qubits, appear to have overtaken the JSC work.

While the quantum computing research funding will be a significant boost for Jülich, the investment is dwarfed by the €1 billion investment announced by the EU in 2016. That money will be distributed over 10 years and dozens of European labs. Separately, Germany has allocated €650 million for quantum technology R&D. In both cases the funds will be applied to research in a number of quantum-based technologies – primarily, computing, communication and storage.

Of course, China and the US are also investing heavily in this space in their respective bids to become quantum superpowers. China is spending an unknown amount of money on various quantum research efforts, one of which is a $10 billion investment to construct the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. That lab is set to open sometime next year. Meanwhile, the US just passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, a law that allocates $1.2 billion for quantum information science research. It’s intended to fund a number of efforts at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Commerce Department over the next five years.

With all that as a backdrop, the Jülich funding looks downright modest. Even so, the €36-million investment is expected to be enough to establish sub-institutes at the center for this work, including working groups comprised of more than 100 additional scientists. In the longer term, new experimental quantum computing platforms are planned for construction.

According to Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, CEO of Forschungszentrum Jülich, the ultimate goal of this work is to develop these technologies for the betterment of society and industry in Germany, while also expanding the world’s understanding of these technology domains.

The funding is scheduled to be put in place by 2020.

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