Alongside artificial intelligence, fintech, robotics, space tech, and connected and automated vehicles (CAM), quantum technologies are an area of significant innovation and investment for the UK – one where it can claim to be among the world leaders.
Yet despite the isolationism of Brexit, and the government’s determination to beat a regulatory and technology path of its own away from Europe, Britain should avoid the temptation to create its own quantum standards. That was according to speakers at a Westminster eForum on supporting quantum technologies in the UK.
Rhys Lewis is Head of the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s centre for measurement standards.
A big part of our work is on standards, based on the community of international metrology organizations, developing the science and technology that will underpin new standards, and then working with international standards development organizations.
But I would say absolutely not [on whether the UK should develop its own quantum standards]. There is no competitive advantage in having UK standards.
What we need to do is to be influential in the world, in global standards, and to have UK priorities recognized and UK technologies of any kind not excluded from international standards – either by mistake or intention.
Dr Michael Cuthbert is Director of the National Quantum Computing Centre. He echoed Lewis’ remarks, saying:
Yes, absolutely not. We’ve got to be influencing. And also, we have got to be live to the fact these are very early stages in quantum technologies. We should be careful not to set standards too early in the process. But we should certainly be influencing as early in the process as possible, so as to allow innovation and the technology itself to continue to develop.
Dr Parag Vyas is a Member of the Regulatory Horizons Council, an independent expert committee that advises the government on the implications of new technologies. He added a rarely heard note of pragmatism in these days of political grandstanding, in which the UK routinely describes itself as a superpower.
We can’t take an isolated view. We're too small, and the investments required are so large that we really need to take a global perspective.
But one thing is worth considering. We've seen that [the UK] having a path forward, a plan, a route map has been influential for other jurisdictions around the world. So, where there's a space opening up, and where standards or regulations are required, but there's a lot of uncertainty, the UK has the opportunity to help move things forward.
And other jurisdictions do seem to appreciate the work that we've done.
The NPL’s Lewis responded:
The NPL was particularly involved in the development of the standards around graphene. And that process of having a roadmap of standardization fed into becoming the roadmap of the international standards organization that was trying to progress this.
So, I am absolutely, fully on board with the concept of not stifling innovation, but I don't think it's too early to be involved.
Of course, one of the things you can do if you're involved is to slow down the process if you believe that others are trying to move too quickly. So being involved is the primary activity, I would say, and being aware of the consequences of what people are doing.
Sue Daley, Director of Tech and Innovation at technology trade association, techUK, added:
Clarity and certainty are key for industry right now.
For comparison, I was listening to the conversation and reflecting on where we are in terms of AI and AI standards. The creation of the UK’s AI standards hub, which the BSI and others are involved in, is a place where industry can get advice, understand what standards exist, and what is applicable.
I know we're not there right now [with quantum] but it may be something that we need to consider or work into a roadmap going forward. How do we create a vehicle like the AI Standards Hub, from where we can share information and knowledge with the wider quantum tech community?
Absolutely. We are talking about exactly that with DSIT [the UK’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology] and other partners, including the BSI, NCSC [the National Cyber Security Centre], and others.
We're proposing something very much along those lines. So, it's just a case of establishing exactly how we do that. A well-recognized central place for information, support, and engagement, and maybe facilitating engagement in some way. I'd like to think that would be coming soon.
Good news for the UK, then, and a welcome acknowledgement from the industry itself that the UK needs to actively engage with the international community, rather than stay on the sidelines, talking about leadership.
So, is the government’s policy of going it alone, distancing itself from EU research in particular, one that is fundamentally misguided?
The UK remains a leading organization in the development of global standards. I think that's perfectly reasonable and rational. But I don't think that in any way means we go our own way, or do it on our own.
We aspire, we want, to take a leading role in the development of standards. And I think that's where we should be: with partners, and with other countries, with strong international support.