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Quantum is revolutionary, but UK must fix funding

Quantum sensing could replace GPS navigation, and cut the cost of major building projects. But industry needs to work with academia to prototype quantum technologies

Quantum computing will be truly revolutionary, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Quantum Technologies was told earlier today.

During the first evidence session of the committee meeting, Ian Walmsley, director at the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub, said: “Quantum computing is a truly revolutionary change in computing capabilities and capacity, and will touch on an extraordinarily wide range of applications.”

Scalable, fault-tolerant quantum computers will be able to fully simulate and analyse all kinds of quantum systems leading to applications like the design of new molecules to understanding new quantum materials.

Walmsey said for the UK, quantum computing is analogous to a moonshot, and presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the UK at the forefront of this emerging field.

Winfried Hensinger, a professor of Quantum Technologies at the University of Sussex, described how the advent of quantum computers would lead to completely new application areas that have yet to be invented.

This is similar to how conventional computers evolved: from the very first computers in World War 2, which were used to help the allies crack the German ciphers, to modern day computers, which run a diverse range of applications. “There is a tremendous opportunity, just as when we first built conventional computers,” he said.

In the second evidence session, Mark Bentall, head of technology development and innovation at Airbus Defence and Space, confirmed the risks quantum technologies pose to UK defence. When asked if quantum technology could be used to detect the UK’s submarine defence, he said a quantum sensor could detect a nuclear submarine, which could potentially undermine the UK’s defence strategy.

Quantum technology fundamental

Bentall said quantum technology is considered an elementary area at Airbus, but it will become more important going forward. “We are in a digital world and we see a natural limit to digital,” he said, adding that quantum technology is fundamental to unlocking this limit.

The main focus of the second evidence session was on how industry can start to benefit from quantum technologies.

Trevor Cross, chief technology officer at Teledyne, said: “Quantum technology is a terrific underpinning technology that will affect many things we do today. I challenge anyone to say they can envision what quantum technology can do.”

He said realising the potential of quantum technology is a long journey, yet argued that unlocking its true value to the economy will not happen on its own.

There needs to be regulatory framework, changes to funding and work to bring on board industry. “60% of industry spend is underpinned by blue sky research,” he said, adding that a huge amount of intellectual property will come out of industry.

Cross said quantum computing innovation centres should be co-located with industry to support the development of large, big-budget product capabilities to give large companies prototypes to look at. “I expect we will see demonstrations of real capabilities in 18 months,” he said.

Read more about quantum technologies

  • In the face of the threat that quantum computers could crack many of the encryption methods used to protect highly sensitive data, BT has developed a “quantum-secured” network.
  • Industry experts predict it will take 10 years for quantum computing to become a reality, but Microsoft believes it has the research edge, with systems, software and technology to get there in five.

Andrew Shields, quantum technologies research and development lead at Toshiba Research Europe, said academic and industry initiatives need to be aligned.

“We need joined up programmes,” he said. “Academic programmes last five years, while industry programmes are one year to 18 months. There needs to be better integration across government, academia and industry.”

Peter Thompson, chief executive officer at National Physical Laboratory, said there is an opportunity to look at where money is being spent, and that industry investment is key to accelerating quantum technologies from technology innovation hubs to industry applications.

“The key message is to demo route to proof of value,” he said. “This requires the technology community and the industry community to work closer together.”

One example of this is the use of quantum sensing for navigation as an alternative to GPS satellites. He said such a system, showing navigation without GPS, would probably be demonstrated within three years.

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