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Quantum tech - big ambitions, but can the UK really lead the world?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 28, 2021
A recent Westminster eForum event saw leaders come together to discuss the priorities for quantum technology progress, both in the UK and worldwide.

Image of quantum computing
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

The UK is a world leader in quantum technologies, according to Roger McKinlay, Challenge Director of Quantum Technologies at UK Research and Investment (UKRI). Comparing the quantum sector today with the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, he quotes the photographer who first showed the world an aeroplane in the sky:

It wasn't luck that made them fly. It was hard work and common sense.

While this might seem like the obligatory grandstanding of UK spokespeople this century, Britain's quantum hubs programme - with four research centres for quantum sensors and timing, enhanced imaging, communications, and computing and simulation - give the claim credibility, coupled with ambitious industrial partnership and investment programmes.

Quantum sensors, imaging, and communications are likely to become profitable markets over the next decade, alongside more accurate atomic clocks and the promise of a secure quantum internet on the horizon.

But new computing paradigms demand more patient capital. University towns such as Cambridge and Bristol are among the UK's research and commercial hotspots, with Cambridge startup Riverlane clinching $20 million Series-A funding to date in its quest to develop its Deltaflow quantum OS and other software.

McKinlay says:

Companies like Riverlane and others are actually getting new money in faster than they can draw down our funding. [...] We're investing in the UK, not because we want a quantum computer, but because we want a quantum computing industry.

Great news. But is it that simple? As with robotics and AI, the UK remains financially cautious about quantum technology compared with the investments seen in China and the US - hardly surprising when IBM, Google, Hewlett Packard, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, and Huawei are among those pouring private money into research. However, its approach is smart and joined-up as it moves through Phase 2 of a national programme. The research infrastructure is there, and it is open to the commercial world via the hubs.

But as we have seen with sectors such as FinTech, in which the US has seized leadership from the UK, massive, dispersed investment has a habit of clinching number-one spot further down the line, as it creates local gravity that bends the market towards it. (FinTech is a useful comparator, as the UK's quantum programme emerged from a government demand to understand time-stamping in financial transactions.)

Sooner or later, innovators follow the big money, not the big ambition - cash that allows startups to be snapped up by corporate behemoths that have greater spending power than some nations. Meanwhile, ambitious state programmes and technology accelerators in California, Texas, and elsewhere, are designed to attract entrepreneurs to relocate there and create new jobs - in all tech sectors.

So while the UK's ambitious quantum programme under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) is cause for celebration, the underpowered investment levels compared with China and the US will always be a concern when it comes to establishing a new tech-driven market. 

Robotics and AI are a case in point: the UK has long had a similar national programme for robotics, with four national research hubs, a few hundred million pounds of ISCF investment, and global expertise in sectors such as robotics for nuclear decommissioning, space exploration, and subsea engineering. Yet the UK has some of the lowest automation and robotics adoption levels in the developed world. 

The right ideas, the right research programme, the right experts, the right technologies, but an Old Etonian shoulder-shrug when it comes to the steps needed to actually modernise the economy with them.

Nevertheless, Liam Maxwell, Deputy Director of Quantum Technologies at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is bullish about the UK's quantum prospects. 

In five years at the end of the second phase of the programme, we should see a national programme in excess of £1 billion over the period. 

We have not just started on this, but really established a leadership position, with the UK being a place to go to research, invest, innovate, commercialise, apply, and benefit from quantum technologies - the whole package. We will really be seen as a leading example of how to establish a new pervasive technology sector.

Living with uncertainty 

Yet to really succeed in quantum technologies, I would argue that what the UK needs are commercial accelerators and innovation centres, both upstream and downstream, that speed real solutions to real problems into markets quickly, alongside a coherent state procurement programme. 

This is where Whitehall's laissez-faire approach to the market side of the equation will always undermine its ambitions; creating such entities feels too much like centralisation and market manipulation for a government that prefers to waffle its way to the high table. Let's face it, post-Brexit, being British no longer guarantees a good seat anywhere.

On the subject of which, only the EPSRC's Maxwell seems prepared to say anything at all about whether Brexit has damaged the UK's international partnership and research ambitions in quantum computing. He tells me:

This is hard to judge, particularly as it is hard to compare with what would happen without Brexit, especially over the last year. There have been challenges reported, but not all partnerships are with EU researchers and innovators.

True. But to give you some idea of the high-stakes competition in the market, Ian West, Partner and Head of Technology, Media, and Telecommunications at KPMG, says:

Chinese scientists claimed to have built a quantum computer that's able to perform certain computations nearly 100 trillion times faster [sic] than the world's most advanced supercomputer, and this represents the first milestone in the country's efforts to develop the technology. So there's certainly huge opportunity, but many countries are racing to lead the way.

The UK is also not good at uncertainty, despite its matchless ability to create it this century. One reason that quantum demands risk and patient capital - investors who are prepared to sit on their hands rather than demand instant payback - is the uncertainty at the core of the technology. 

McKinlay says: 

It scares some people that there isn't any standard form of that technology. There are many different candidates - ion traps, silicon, superconducting diamond, neutral atoms, and so on. 

People say to me, ‘Isn't this the VHS/Betamax problem?' But this is not that kind of standardisation issue: we have no evidence that there'll be one technology in the future that will dominate; there might be different ones, different applications of quantum computing. That's not to say there won't be a dominant approach, which serves a larger market, but don't be presumptive that this is walking the same path as classical computing.

Dr Siddarth Joshi, Research Fellow in Quantum Communication, Networks, and Enhanced Sensing at the University of Bristol, adds:

The problem is quantum technologies are disruptive, in the sense that you have to replace infrastructure, you have to rethink a lot of things that we are already used to. There are very few or no standards and this hampers adoption.

But for Jonathan Legh-Smith, Head of Scientific Affairs at BT, the UK's joined-up approach may pay dividends in this regard:

I would say our strength comes from having a national position, wherever possible, even if it's informal at present. International standards really work best if there's a single voice.

Dr Carl Williams is Deputy Director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He says:

One place where we have very strong international engagement is standards development. This is almost always an international activity, because standards are essential to free trade and commerce. Canada, the UK, and the US have already had several interactions around future quantum standards. So there's a lot of activity going on, with sustainable development organisations moving into this area - quite actively and in some cases very prematurely. 

The issue here is that standards only have value if they're internationally accepted. You can look at standards by looking at technical readiness levels, and a lot of the quantum technologies are at very, very low levels. So it's premature to be pushing certain types of standards at the moment, because we'll make unwise decisions. And often if you make early decisions, they also give unfair political market advantage.

That sounds like it may be directed at the EU. And it's reasonable to assume that the US would like that market advantage itself. Williams continues:

Quantum key distribution is probably one of the exceptions: the technology there is far more advanced. But do we really actually know what the architecture of a general-purpose quantum computer could look like? No. Do we know what the interface standards are? No, I don't think we do. So the problem is, at the moment there are some countries pushing quite aggressively to increase the amount of standardisation, and it's probably premature.

Supply chain superiority 

Williams spoke with all the accumulated confidence of a country that has led many aspects of the modern technology industry, hinting that the US is the place to discuss standards in partnership with industry consortia. 

The vision is to develop and grow a global quantum information science and technology industry that enables economic and societal benefits. The big companies all understand that their supply chain here is going to be global. No one country is going to do this. And so we would like to do this with like-minded partners.

In short, ‘Come to the US and work with us'. The supply chain point is an excellent one, of course, and Williams adds:

The supply chain and infrastructure required to build a complex industry is big, and the supply chain for the quantum industry is something that's going to have to be developed. And so, in the US under the National Quantum Initiative Act, NIST was asked to set up a consortium - the Quantum Economic Development Consortium - and we set this up to be industry led. 

The idea was, ‘Let's begin to build the supply chain that we will need for future complex quantum systems. Let's not pick winners and losers, because that creates problems for all of us, and creates a situation that is very competitive and will not keep industry at the table.

In short, ‘Don't imagine that you can do this without the US'. You can feel the gravity bending towards North America in these statements - which was surely the point of him making them. This is the problem: the big tech industry is in the US and China, with all the supply chain advantages this confers.

At present, the other missing element in quantum technology is demand, and here KPMG's West sounds a note of caution:

At present, my view is there is a barrier to development and widespread take-up in some of our clients. Some of those in industry I speak to just don't understand the technology, or see it as one for the academics only.

Yes, there is investment from large and small, tech, government, academia, and PR today. But the message I hear from many clients - clients that could be future users of the technology - isn't that encouraging.

With quantum technologies potentially transforming every area of computing, according to Elham Kashefi, Professor of Quantum Computing at the University of Edinburgh (also a major robotics centre), this knowledge gap clearly needs to be overcome.

For Kashefi, who is also a member of the senior science team at the UK's Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub, and Directeur de Recherche at CNRS, LIP6, at the Sorbonne, the UK's strength in testing, benchmarking, and verification will be key, alongside its joined-up approach.

She says:

Somebody has the quantum computer, somebody has the algorithm, somebody has the data, somebody has the hardware, and everybody wants to share. Everybody wants to achieve their privacy and integrity, and by combining communication and computation we [are able] to present the highest level of computation, verification, and benchmarking.

My take

So it seems the UK will at least be checking everyone's workings, while setting the tone and expressing its own considerable ambitions. But the government has to supply the missing pieces of the market locally if Phase 2 of the UK's quantum programme is really going to lead the world. Failure to do so will see innovators follow the big money across the Atlantic, where big toys meet big noise. 

Disclosure: The discussion took place at the Westminster eForum on quantum technologies on Tuesday 26 January.

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