UK quantum leadership - beware the Ides of March!

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton April 1, 2022 Audio mode
The UK's done remarkably well in quantum computing to date, but what's needed now to make that sustainable?

Yesterday - 31 March 2022 - was a red-letter day for the UK quantum technologies sector. But not for good reasons. It was the date Britain’s participation in the European’ Commission’s Quantum Flagship program came to end, a knock-on effect of Brexit.

Established in 2018, the 10-year strategic research and investment program has attracted seven times its original €1 billion ($1.1 billion) public/private funding. It aims to kickstart a competitive European market for quantum technologies – something the UK ought to be part of as it nurtures its own quantum sector. Those start-up businesses will, after all, need customers, partners, and further investors.

On 31 March at a Westminster eForum on next steps for the UK quantum market, Dr Tommaso Calarco, Director of the Institute of Quantum Control, Forschungszentrum Jülich, said:

The logic [of the Quantum Flagship] is not only to take the technology, which is provided by the research part, and deploy it for the benefit of society, but also to help bootstrap the market and bridge the quantum winter. A first wave of procurement will give a strong start to the market at European level.

The big question for future strategy on both the European and UK sides is one of cooperation. Now, I wouldn’t dare to challenge the patriotic spirit and tone that has pervaded the presentations [from Britain]. But I'd like to remind everyone of something that Hartmut Neven, head of the quantum effort at Google, said. Despite the virtually infinite resources that Google can count on, he said no individual company or country can master the quantum challenge because it is not a race amongst nations, but a race between mankind and nature.

He added:

We are still working to create a base for the involvement of our colleagues from the UK in the Flagship. But of course, we know that this depends on higher-level decisions.

Message received. The subtext of Calarco’s point is something overlooked by nationalistic policymakers: research and development is, by its very nature, an international, collaborative process – something underscored by roughly 50 percent of the UK’s quantum academics (according to figures presented at the event) coming from overseas.

Those experts and innovators will only stay if the UK’s considerable academic and start-up progress in quantum technologies translates into a sustainable, healthy market with real customers, partners, investment, job opportunities, and payback for their skills.

Progress to date

Government aside, a domestic market of just 67 million people in which 99% of all companies are SMEs is not something that can sustain a world-leading quantum sector in isolation. Walking away from thriving cooperative programmes in a single market of 27 countries is a dumb idea, because it makes UK success much harder to achieve in the future.

So, how well has the UK been doing until today? The answer is remarkably well.

Among individual nations, only the US is ahead in establishing a quantum sector, and that’s largely down to the private investments of a big five of US tech behemoths: Alphabet/Google, Amazon (via AWS), IBM, Microsoft (via Azure), and Intel. These are largely focused on making enterprise quantum services available in the cloud, plus developing useable processors and researching post-quantum cryptography.

The UK can claim to be number two in the field, though by some technical measures, such as entangled state generation and entangled state fidelity (essentially quantum speed and accuracy), UK innovators from Oxford and Cambridge currently lead the world. However, Canada is hothousing a thriving sector, China is pouring an estimated $15 billion into quantum research, and Germany is fast catching up with the UK with an ambitious program of its own – the largest outside of China, and one that is plugged into the EC’s Quantum Flagship, of course.

The UK’s significant success to date comes from its own £1 billion ($1.3 billion) program, which has established the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC), the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), a network of four academic quantum hubs (similar to the UK’s robotics hubs network) and invested in numerous thriving start-ups via UK Research and Investment (UKRI), Innovate UK, and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Britain has also been funding quantum PhDs - 85 of them to date.

All of this is great news. The internal coherence of the UK sector, this partnership between government, academia, and industry, is perhaps its greatest strength, whereas the US market is more about tech titans duking it out for ‘quantum supremacy’ – a term that eForum speakers noted is increasingly outmoded. The real focus should be ‘quantum advantage’: finding and commercialising those areas where quantum devices will perform better than their classical counterparts in the future.

One of the companies that has benefited from the UK’s support of quantum to date is Quantinuum, the company formed by the merger of UK start-up Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) and Honeywell Quantum Solutions. CEO (and founder of CQC) Ilyas Khan told the eForum:

We are the world's largest [standalone] quantum computing firm by any measure: by number of people, by scope, by scale, by commercialisation, by revenues. And that is a tangible product of what the UK has produced. And it's worth bearing in mind that the ecosystem that is around us, whether it's in Cambridge, Bristol, London, or Scotland is thriving because of the way in which we have embraced those opportunities.

But there are challenges moving forward, he warned:

This has become a nation state game. It is strategic globally. We have an office in Munich, and the amount of capital that the German state is putting into quantum, and the fact that Angela Merkel said two years ago that Germany faces an existential risk if they don't get quantum right, is a measure of how seriously that country takes it.

Many other countries – Netherlands, Canada, India, Japan, Korea, Australia – are in the field. What this means is we can't rest on our laurels. British companies, British organizations, must support British enterprises. It's not selfish, it's not short sighted, it's necessary.

The second thing I'd like to point out is a little bit easier to acknowledge in the private sector than in the government sector. I think the private sector, where it can, should now put its hands in its pocket and start funding research, rather than depending on government grants. We've got to show real commitment. At Quantinuum, we are funding PhDs at 12 universities in the United Kingdom. We will wherever possible, not take government money, because we want to fund it from our own coffers. But we're lucky. We've got hundreds of millions of dollars, and we have raised almost a billion dollars. So, we can afford to do it. But we're small compared to the other embedded institutions in the United Kingdom.


That the UK has achieved so much so quickly is partly due to the far-sightedness of one man, Sir Peter Knight, now Chair of the UK’s National Quantum Technology Programme Strategic Advisory Board, and of the Quantum Metrology Institute at the NPL. Knight saw an opportunity for the UK at least a decade ago, a time when most technologists and analysts saw quantum technologies as a branch of theoretical physics rather than as a more immediate commercial opportunity. Speaking at the eForum, he said:

We want this to be a part of the digital backbone of the UK, to generate advanced manufacturing in this exciting sector, and to contribute on a long list of things that are critical for us.

We have 14 UK quantum suppliers as part of our supply chain. We've been incredibly successful in generating start-ups, more so than anywhere else in Europe. We’ve raised the largest proportion of venture capital funding in Europe as well.

Dr Michael Cuthbert, Director, National Quantum Computing Centre, added:

I want to highlight just how the landscape has evolved. Venture capital raised by UK quantum companies has almost doubled in the past 12 months. And the number of people employed in the quantum start-up community is up by 60%. So, it's a growing industry and it's moving very rapidly.

Quantum technologies could be transformational in areas such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, advanced materials, machine learning (in industrial and optimization problems), cryptography, and cybersecurity, he said. So, the real challenge lies in driving user adoption, and taking people on the “journey from awareness to advocacy”.

Where next? 

So, what next for the UK’s quantum strategy? At this point, pragmatism and honesty about the challenge comes to the fore, suggested the NPL’s Knight:

In quantum computing, for the first five to 10 years we're going to be building prototype machines, which are noisy [Knight is referring to system noise and error correction]. Sometimes this is called ‘noisy intermediate-scale quantum computing. And that's where we'll be for five to 10 years.

But the UK is also playing a major role in developing quantum software, both among the research community, and especially in our start-up and SME community, where we are leading the way in many areas of building quantum architecture and operating systems. In terms of the hardware, there are a number of different choices. We will have to narrow that down as the science is better understood over time.

Trapped ions manipulated by lasers have got the longest useful quantum bit lifetimes. Whereas superconductors have the largest current qubit count, largely led by industry. […] The US and China are leading on superconducting types, although there's terrific activity in the UK too. If we look at trapped ions, the US, UK, and China are fabricating really interesting quantum chips for trapped ion quantum computing.

Even some of the noisy devices available today are demonstrating quantum advantages over classical computers in solving specific types of problems, he said, adding: 

On investment, the United States is leading the way, especially with private investments. But the UK is in a very substantial position, given the size of the population compared with the US. We are therefore punching way above our weight per capita. But we need to avoid hype. We need to be realistic about what quantum technology can currently do.

Another threat would be the skills shortage as this area really starts to ramp up around the world. There'll be severe competition for the best of talent. And that rapid expansion of competition internationally will play a role.

My take

So, the UK has established a strong bridgehead in quantum technology, second only to the US, where superheated Big Tech players are battling for dominance. Meanwhile, the market itself is heating up.

New research published on 31 March by the Capgemini Research Institute reveals that almost a quarter (23%) of organizations are working (or planning to work) on deploying quantum technologies in some form, with expectations of at least one major commercial application within the next three to five years. More, 20% of organizations are expecting to increase investments in the technology in the next year.

Capgemini advises organizations to start preparing now for the quantum advantage. Pascal Brier, Chief Innovation Officer at Capgemini, said:

Recent breakthroughs in quantum technologies seek to herald a new era for computing, sensors and cybersecurity within the next five years. Our research confirms that more and more organizations are getting educated about the technology and experimenting with real-life quantum technology applications.

In the past two years, we’ve seen leaders emerge in the financial industry and a lot of traction in automotive, in particular. Getting ready today is critical to be able to capitalize on these new generation technologies when commercial applications become mainstream.

But in the meantime, early leader the UK has set about severing its major international political and trade alliances. So, let’s hope that Brexit won’t be the gift that keeps on taking.

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