Welome to IQT’s ongoing series from FactBasedInsight.
The quantum race is truly underway as regions and nations vie to join the $1 billion club. 2020 will see geopolitical considerations increasingly hard to ignore as major national programmes chart their way forward. 2019 was a year of consolidation for national quantum programmes. Everyone wanted to boast about how much they are spending.
Today the discussion centers on Europe’s efforts in quantum computing.
In Europe, the EU’s 10-year €1b Quantum Flagship entered its first full year. The 20 projects of the ramp-up phase are underway and have been joined by complementary initiatives such OPENQKD. New projects are being finalised in the areas of silicon spin qubits and software. The Flagship benefits from the prominent engagement of large EU businesses such as ATOS, Thales and Airbus. The success of Thierry Breton (formerly ATOS CEO) as Emmanuel Macron’s nominee for EU Commissioner is a significant boost for the visibility of the programme. Breton will have the Internal Market portfolio, including digital, industry, space and defence .
The Quantum Flagship was launched as part of the Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme (2014-20). The successor programme Horizon Europe (2021-27) will feature ‘missions’ rather than new flagships, a subtle shift of headline emphasis from industrial competitiveness to societal benefits. Mission areas are likely to include climate-neutral smart cities, healthy oceans, fighting cancer, soil health and climate change adaption. Quantum Flagship funding is set to continue and enthusiasts will see an opportunity for quantum technology to play a key enabling role in many of the overall missions.
The Quantum Flagship also has a natural synergy with the Digital Europe (2021-27) programme proposed by the Commission, including the continuation of the QCI initiative and a corresponding initiative for quantum computing infrastructure. The Quantum Flagship itself has started to articulate its own powerful vision – to build the Quantum Internet in Europe. A 20-25 year goal that is very striking in its ambition.
While many would expect continued and increased funding for the EU’s quantum initiatives to be a no-brainer, there are significant headwinds. The overall EU budget for 2021-27 is not yet agreed. The loss of the UK, the second largest net contributor, puts additional pressure on existing North-South and East-West tensions over budget size and priorities. The Commission’s initial budget proposal has been rejected by key member states. Both its size and structure are contentious. Entrenched support for large agricultural and cohesion fund spending led to a proposal from Finland (then holders of the EU Council rotating presidency) that the strain should be taken by cuts in the remaining third of the budget – Horizon Europe and Digital Europe make up over a quarter of that third. Lobbying is already underway to protect the EU’s quantum ambitions from collateral damage.
The UK has now completed phase 1 (2014-19) of its pioneering NQTP, and phase 2 (2019-24) is getting underway. Across the 10 years of the programme, overall spend amounts to about £1b. Boris Johnson’s government can be expected to make science and innovation a major part of its programme. Their election manifesto promised a series of mission-like challenges: clean energy and advanced energy storage; a cure for dementia; and solving antibiotic resistance. These are all areas where NQTP enthusiasts are already arguing that quantum technology can help. The manifesto also outlined plans for ‘a new agency for high-risk high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government’ and a significant funding increase. This isn’t an accident, but part of an evolution in thinking on the political right. Brexit notwithstanding, the Conservatives have promised a continued desire to take part in Horizon Europe.
National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) – A major feature of UK NQTP phase 2, this new facility is set to be sited at the Harwell science and innovation campus near Oxford. This is not just a continuation of investment in one quantum computing technology, but more a ratcheting-up of ambition. Many would characterise NQTP Phase 1 as having used the limited funds available to ‘take a bet’ on trapped ions qubit technology. Indeed, some would point to the failure of a photonics-led bid to be one of the initially selected hubs to be the reason why PsiQ have now relocated to the US. The UK will continue to invest in trapped ion technology, which does indeed remain a competitor both for NISQ and FTQC applications. However the NQCC is also about a long-term broader commitment to the sector. The new centre will provide a space for engineering of demonstrators and prototypes as they scale up. It will develop and maintain its own roadmap based on whatever technologies are ready to benefit from and contribute to this approach. Importantly it will provide access for quantum software teams to work collaboratively during this process.
The UK already enjoys a strength in quantum software, with startups such as CQC, Riverlane, Rahko, Phasecraft and GTN. This position is set to be significantly boosted by increasing engagement from a unique wing of the UK establishment.
GCHQ helped invent the world’s first programmable electronic computer in 1943, but kept it secret. It invented the first public key crypto algorithm in 1973, and again kept it secret. For many years GCHQ has been a destination of choice for some of the UK’s best maths graduates, but they don’t talk about it much.
Speaking at the opening of the UK 2019 Quantum Showcase Gaven Smith (GCHQ DGT) struck a new tone “GCHQ wants to be an increasingly active part of this community, including continuing engagement from NCSC … Increasingly GCHQ needs to be open and visible where it can be”. This is potentially a powerful addition to the UK quantum software ecosystem, and one that only a few countries can directly match.
The Netherlands has established an enviable position punching significantly above its weight in quantum technology. It benefits from a tightly grouped cluster of leading institutes including QuTech, QuSoft and QT/e and strong universities. In 2019 it launched Quantum Delta NL (QΔNL) as part of a national agenda to secure its position as a world-leading centre and hub for quantum technology. Funding is €102m/yr (equivalent to a €1b programme over 10 years). The Netherlands has been particularly adroit in building popular backing for their programme. The inaugural IQT Europe business-oriented quantum tech event  was opened by Prince Constantijn van Oranje, reminding the audience that “innovation has an incredibly important entrepreneurial component”, something the Dutch seem to understand.
Germany launched its own national quantum initiative in 2018, with €650m of funding to 2022 (a run-rate equivalent to €1.3b over ten years). In addition to its influential position in the EU Flagship and its extensive university infrastructure, Germany is home to Fraunhofer, a world leading RTO already very active in the quantum tech sector. Via Fraunhofer, Germany has secured the announcement of the first planned installation of an IBM Q System One in Europe. Via its Forschungszentrum Jülich Supercomputing Center it has secured the first planned installation of a D-Wave Leap hub outside of North America.