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UK can do more to explore potential of quantum tech

The government has been urged to address use cases, security and skills, and proposed a series of new innovation centres, to enable the UK to fully capture the opportunity presented by quantum technology

Critical changes must be made to the government’s £270m National Quantum Technologies Programme as it moves into its second phase, in order to enhance its impact and enable the UK to turn its world-beating quantum research capabilities into a world-leading industry.

That was the verdict of the Science and Technology Committee’s Quantum technologies report, which has just been published following a lengthy inquiry that sought the views of computing experts, academics and multiple industry bodies.

Intensive research into quantum technology around the world is rapidly improving the extent to which the sometimes counter-intuitive behaviour governed by quantum physics can be exploited by humans to create a new generation of digital technologies, such as cameras capable of seeing around corners or “unhackable” networks.

The inquiry concluded that quantum technology offers the opportunity for significant economic growth, but, as is the case with most other new technologies, also presents a number of risks to society, particularly around national security, given the potential military applications of the technology.

“Quantum technologies promise great benefits for the UK’s prosperity and security,” said committee chair Norman Lamb. “We welcome the government’s important decision to fund a second phase of the National Quantum Technologies Programme, to seize the transformational opportunity that quantum technologies offer.

“Despite being world leaders in this field, there are still areas that we must improve and work on to stay ahead of the game. Identifying markets that could benefit from the use of quantum technologies must be a priority for any new executive board, as must the provision of a skilled, multidisciplined workforce.

“Quantum technologies also offer exciting opportunities for the UK’s national security, as well as for economic prosperity. The government must ensure that the second phase of the programme gives equal priority to benefiting the country’s national security as well as its prosperity.”

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The committee’s report made four key recommendations to the government to take into account during the coming months and years.

It proposed the establishment of a new executive board with accountability and a clearly defined mission statement to oversee the next phase of the current quantum programme, with the aim of developing a UK quantum industry that can deliver the maximum economic, national security and social benefit.

It also recommended the establishment of a series of innovation centres in addition to existing hubs, offering access to facilities for developing, building, testing and validating quantum technology. These centres should also target specific vertical markets, rather than reflecting the different types of quantum technology, it said.

Tied into this, the committee said the second phase of the programme should be better engaged with businesses and industry bodies that have not yet actively started to pursue opportunities around quantum, and should start to encourage government departments to explore how they could use quantum technology to address their remit.

Finally, the committee highlighted a significant concern raised by many of the contributors to the report – that a lack of suitably skilled workers could hamstring development of quantum technology. Existing training programmes established during the programme’s first phase were well regarded, it said, but the training offered must now be improved substantially, with more done to ensure it is available at undergraduate, technician and apprentice level, alongside ongoing provision at PhD level.

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