(ZDNet) The UK is now facing a huge challenge: after having secured a top spot in the quantum race, retaining the country’s status is going to require some serious stepping up. As more countries unlock billions-worth of budgets for quantum computing, it is becoming clear that a furious competition is gradually unrolling.
The UK is keen to prove that it is a quantum hotspot in the making. Peter Knight, who sits on the strategic advisory for the UK’s national quantum technology program (NQTP), recently said, “We have a very successful program that is widely admired and emulated around the world.” Knight said, “The UK is on track to become “the go-to place” for new quantum companies to start”.
The UK is just over halfway through the NQTP, which saw its second five-year phase kick off at the end of 2019, and at the same time hit an impressive milestone of £1 billion ($1.37 billion) combined investment. This, the government claims, is letting the UK keep pace with competitor – namely, the US and China.
Despite the huge sums already invested, the UK is now facing a bigger challenge yet: after having chased a top spot in the quantum race, retaining the country’s status in the face of ferocious competition is going to require some serious stepping up.
The country’s early involvement in the field. The NQTP was announced as early as 2013, and started operating in 2014, with an initial £270 million ($370 million) budget. The vision laid out in the program includes creating a “quantum-enabled economy”, in which the technology would significantly contribute to the UK’s economy and attract both strong investment and global talent.
Since it launched in 2014, there has been abundant evidence of the academic successes of the initial phase of the NQTP. In Birmingham, the Quantum Sensing Hub is developing new types of quantum-based magnetic sensors that could help diagnose brain and heart conditions, while the Quantum Metrology Institute leads the development of quantum atomic clocks. There are up to 160 research groups and universities registered across the UK with programs that are linked to quantum technologies.
The government’s efforts have been, to an extent, rewarded. The quantum startup ecosystem is thriving in the UK, with companies like Riverlane or Cambridge Quantum Computing completing strong rounds of private financing. In total, up to 204 quantum-related businesses have been listed so far in the country.
“The US remains the biggest competitor, with a big concentration of universities and academics and the pedigree and culture of commercializing university research,” King tells ZDNet. In the worst of cases, this has led to US technology hubs hoovering up some of the best quantum brains in the UK.
Competition will be coming from other parts of the world as well. In addition to the European Commission’s €1 billion ($1.20 billion) quantum flagship, EU countries are also spending liberally on the technology. Germany, in particular, has launched a €2 billion ($2.4 billion) funding program for the promotion of quantum technologies in the country.
Little data is available to measure the scope of the commercialization of quantum technology in China, but the country has made no secret of its desire to secure a spot in the quantum race, too.
The UK has positioned itself well from an early stage in the quantum race, but becoming a frontrunner was only one part of the job. Preserving the country’s position for the coming years might prove to be the hardest challenge yet.