Quantum of solace for UK plc?

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton February 4, 2020
Chris Middleton presents the first of two reports from the Westminster eForum on quantum technology. First, where does the government stand in nurturing a new quantum economy?

Image representing quantum physics

The British government is serious about quantum technologies, if the delegate list at a recent Westminster eForum on investment and commercialisation in this complex sector was anything to go by. Nearly everyone at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster – a church hall emblazoned with Biblical verses – represented a Whitehall acronym, with dozens of representatives from BEIS, DIT, DCMS, and HMRC, among others, sat alongside colleagues from the Cabinet Office and the House of Commons. 

Chair of the opening session, Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science, and Innovation, observed that politicians need to keep on top of subjects like quantum technology, despite some in the industry trying to persuade them otherwise. She said:

Technology moves so fast and as MPs particularly they say to us, ‘You can never understand it, it's moving too fast. Just do what the lobbyists tell you to do.’

We know from Dominic Cummings’ WhatsApp messages that he feels quantum computing isn’t radical enough. But I believe that we need to understand the commercial potential, the commercial realities and public policy realities, if we are to be able to ensure that it develops in a way that that supports our prosperity and security.

Also in attendance were a smattering of academics and regulators, plus the inevitable management consultants looking for their next billable route into government. The rood screen separating clergy from populace may have been replaced with powerpoint slides, but the awed congregation listened to presentations that, to many, were no less mysterious than the Latin pronouncements of medieval priests. And all this on the day before Brexit.

That didn’t stop Liam Blackwell, Deputy Director of Quantum Technologies at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), from putting a positive spin on the subject – yes, that is a joke for particle physicists. The spin was familiar to anyone who has followed the Industrial Strategy in recent years: the UK is leading the world, he claimed, turning Britain’s acknowledged strength in quantum science into viable technologies, making the UK the go-to destination for investment.

New partners, new funding streams, new research, new technologies... excellent news, but backed by almost no detail from Blackwell on what any of that meant. Replace ‘quantum technology’ with ‘robotics’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ and – despite the EPSRC’s excellent work in those areas – this could have been any government technology speech from the past ten years. 

In the case of robotics, for example, that “world leading” spin has amounted to just a couple of hundred million pounds of central investment – much of which came from the EU – low levels of industrial automation, scant VC funding, and the impetus lost to China, Japan, the US, South Korea, and several of our EU allies. 

That’s woefully inadequate when set against the aims of the Industrial Strategy – despite the UK’s academic and research excellence in fields such as extreme environment robotics, the country’s four academic Robotics Hubs, and other superb initiatives.

Change is needed

Can the UK fare any better in commercialising quantum technologies, especially now it stands alone on the world stage? Can British subatomic science – not just quantum computing, but also quantum timing, navigation, imaging, sensors, security, and communications – attract big enough investment and support to compete? Or do the nation’s quantum ambitions break down at the universal scale – the massive, gravity-forming bucks that are available in China, or in the US private sector at Google, IBM, et al?

I spoke to a source at another recent conference, who said that Innovate UK is now solely concerned with fine-tuning its existing projects and investments. This suggests that the modest but ambitious Expert Missions, challenges, and funding rounds that accompanied the launch of the Industrial Strategy – and have more recently been spurred by Brexit – may have run their course once existing monies have been allocated.

If true, that would be a national tragedy: a good strategy forever entangled with piecemeal, inadequate investment – a future that is both on and off at the same time. Global Britain, but funded like a small local authority. This is the real problem facing the UK. Despite the futurist ramblings of Dominic Cummings, the UK throws mere pennies at its multibillion-dollar ambitions. That needs to change.

One thing the UK has got right is the joined-up approach between its research labs, its £120 million quantum hubs (Sensors and Metrology, Quantum Enhanced Imaging [QuantIC], Networked Quantum Information Technologies [NQUIT], and Quantum Communications Technologies) the private sector, investors, and government – a strategy that is proving hard for the US to emulate across 50 states.

That said, the US experience in financial technology, for example, reveals that its widespread entrepreneurialism takes up any federal slack. Recent research from CBInsights found high levels of fintech investment (a total of $46 billion) across 35 US states. That’s 70 percent of the country.

A development bottleneck 

But one of the big challenges in commercialising quantum technologies affects the entire global sector, not just the UK: What is it for? And how do we grow an industry that, fittingly, is an unknown quantity? Dr Rhys Lewis, Head of the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), offered a primer for those less familiar with the science of very small things (quanta, such as photons and electrons).

While it is recognised that quantum timing (hyper-accurate, portable atomic clocks for example), quantum imaging (such as sensing how a single photon of light behaves in a complex environment, opening up a world in which cameras ‘see’ around corners), gravitational sensors (which detect differences in mass below ground, and so can reveal hidden voids or objects), quantum computing (probabilistic results from small data sets, for example), and tamper-proof quantum security and communications all have huge commercial potential, much of this is ‘hard tech’. 

That means it is tough, slow, and expensive to develop, and demands that investors think both speculatively and in the long term – so-called ‘patient capital’. That’s not a good fit for any conservative, risk-averse investment culture.

As the eForum explored, quantum hardware must come before the algorithms and applications that run on it; porting something over from the classical computing world just won’t work. 

That means there is a development bottleneck between these discrete worlds – between the quantum physics laboratory and the commodity laptop on your desk. One of the reasons IBM has positioned quantum computing as a cloud service, for example, is because we currently need large spaces and complex operating conditions to run small quantum computers. 

Creating a quantum industry

At the same time, there will be demands for a broad range of skills, not just in quantum physics, but also in fabrication, cryogenics, superconductors, ion traps, generative systems, lasers, cryptography, quantum key distribution, coding, benchmarking, testing, and more. But at present, the precise nature of the skills needed to support a quantum economy, not to mention a wider service economy, remains unclear.

Until then, opportunity may exceed supply of those skills, which hands the advantage to countries like China (which can throw human resources and state investment at the problem), or the US and its portfolio investment culture (aka fail fast, succeed big). 

Put another way, the UK doesn’t need a quantum computer, it needs a quantum industry. But it needs to will that into existence independently, on modest funding, before most people understand what it is, let alone how to make money from it. And it needs to do so without having signed any significant trade deals.

Both ends of this spectrum were in evidence at the eForum, in presentations from IBM and startup Nu Quantum – a spinout from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

For Dr Peter Waggett, Director of Emerging Technology at IBM Research UK (speaking as IBM’s Chair and CEO Virginian Rometty announced her retirement), his company has isolated the hardware from the programming and application layer by offering quantum computing as a cloud service.

He described the emergence of an integrated technology economy this decade: one of bits (classical computing), qubits (quantum computing), and neurons (artificial intelligence that models the human brain), with our system/model choices dependant on the task at hand. Quantum services will be of particular value to the UK in drug and materials discovery, he said.

Dr Carmen Palacios-Barraquero is CEO of Nu Quantum, a startup specialising in ‘single photon’ (room temperature, rather than supercooled superconductor) hardware for optical communications, quantum cybersecurity, and sensing. Since founding the company in 2018, she has raised close to £1 million in capital and has established partnerships with the NPL and BT, among others.

Palacios-Barraquero was upbeat and positive about the UK’s integrated investment landscape – perhaps due to Nu Quantum’s close association with Cambridge. However, she outlined an important role for government in nurturing a quantum economy: stimulating and supporting the hardware development.

I asked one of my main investors, what is the ratio between hardware and software startups, and he said it’s only 10 to 90. And this is a deep-tech investor in Cambridge. So that tells us something. 

He said that hardware investors are really hard to find, because the hardware is expensive. So these investors need to be knowledgeable in tech, knowledgeable in hardware, and patient over long timescales. [...] This is where the government comes in: grants.

The next thing to do in order to make prototypes and products, and do the research, is to literally get out of the attic. And here it is also difficult for hardware startups. [...] It is really important that we have facilities that are close to departments and universities. Young startups need access to facilities they can just move into [...] so they can focus on delivering product.

Move quickly 

So could the UK provide greater detail on supporting its quantum ambitions? That task fell to closing speaker and late-period Hugh Grant lookalike, Roger McKinlay, Director of Quantum Technologies at UK Research and Investment (UKRI, which includes Innovate UK). He said:

This is a joined up, 10-year programme involving several bits of government: EPSRC, UKRI, BEIS, GCHQ, the MoD, the NPL. It is very rare to be able to have a plan and execute it in how we're going to invest in new technology in the UK. And we're halfway through this programme.

McKinlay described industry and academia working together, bankrolled by £153 million of government funds and £205 million from industry – figures that are even smaller than the UK’s central investment in robotics. 

We have four cunning plans. Collaborative R&D is the real engine room, getting these people to work together, then feasibility studies – we’ve had a round of that. And then two new animals: one is an investment accelerator to encourage VCs [...] and another we call Tech Projects, which is to try and address some of the enabling technologies, away from the core quantum technologies.

Since June 2019 in a programme announced by Theresa May, 177 businesses have applied for funding, 344 applications have been looked at, and UKRI has decided on 31 projects to back. So far, £40 million in grants has been awarded with £30 million on the cards – a total of £70 million out of £153 million in just six months. 

McKinlay said:

The message there is, if you're not yet planning to apply, think about it, because it is moving very very fast.

My take

So there you have it: the government has just £83 million left to invest in kickstarting a sector that could be worth billions to the economy. A sector that it would be dangerous not to lead, because the first country to gain traction in quantum security and communications could change the computing landscape. 

In short, a familiar British approach to technology in line with the Industrial Strategy: the right joined-up thinking, the right expertise, the right ideas, and the right partnerships, but woeful levels of funding in a world of trillion-dollar private corporations, US aggression, and resurgent Chinese ambition. 

Despite the UK’s skilled, ambitious, brilliant researchers and innovators, we continue to present ourselves as penny-pinching bumblers in a world of big bread and circuses.