Boris Johnson is not a man known for shying away from hyperbole, so it is perhaps no surprise that the prime minister is a convert to the merits of one of the most hyped technologies of recent years; quantum computing.
“Having talked to [Deepmind co-founder] Demis Hassabis and to Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google, it is clear that we need to go big on quantum computing,” Johnson said at an event in November. “If AI can mimic the intuitive flair of the human brain, then quantum computing will enable us to process information so fast that we can process an almost infinite number of solutions at once.”
The PM was referring to the potential deployment of quantum machines to help fight the climate crisis and enable Britain and other economies around the world to move to net zero. But the government has quantum plans in other areas too, having pinpointed the technology is one of the seven pillars of its new innovation strategy, designed to make post-Brexit Britain a global science and technology superpower.
The UK is already in a strong position regarding quantum computing, having invested in the technology on a national level almost a decade ago. This foresight has given rise to a collection of innovative and world-leading businesses. Today, government innovation agency Innovate UK launched a new £6m fund to back projects driving quantum computing commercialisation, indicating a continued commitment to the sector’s development.
However, as other countries bolster their own investments and the commercial potential of quantum technologies begins to be realised, Johnson will need to make good on his promise to “go big” if Britain is to continue to play a leading role in the global quantum ecosystem, particularly when it comes to developing the quantum workforce and future talent pipeline.
The UK and quantum computing: where are we now?
Quantum computers represent information in quantum form using qubits. So whereas a classical computer, which runs on bits, represents data as a one or a zero, quantum data can simultaneously be a one and a zero. This means a quantum computer can, in theory, process information much faster and more efficiently than a classical machine. The technology remains at an early stage, and in November IBM unveiled what it claims is the most powerful processor yet, the 127-qubit Eagle, and declared it would reach “quantum advantage” – the point where quantum machines outperform traditional computers on certain tasks, within two years.
The UK government started its quantum computing journey in 2013 when it invested £270m to set up the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, with a quantum roadmap following a year later. The second phase of the programme kicked off in 2019 and runs until 2025. Including industry contributions, the Quantum Technologies Programme has invested more than £1bn in the sector, the government says.
“The way the [government programme] has developed has been very interesting,” says Professor John Morton, director of the Quantum Science and Technology Institute at UCL. “At the beginning it was very much directed towards academic research, trying to foster and cultivate interest in this within industry. Now we’re in the second phase, and the majority of funding is going towards industry-led projects, with matched funding from the government being put into projects which is helping to de-risk them for large companies and start-ups.”
This investment has led to the development of a cluster of quantum companies that have become internationally significant in the market, including Cambridge Quantum, which recently merged with US multi-national Honeywell’s quantum division to create Quantinuum, a company it hopes will bring together Cambridge Quantum’s prowess in software and operating systems with Honeywell’s quantum hardware development.
Waseem Shiraz was part of the Cambridge Quantum team, and is now chief operating officer at Quantinuum. “The UK was essentially a first-mover on quantum computing in 2013,” he says. “That foresight was key, as was the deep and diversified education sector that is a critical source in the supply of talent. Quantum computing, if it is going to develop, needs an incredible amount of talented people, and in the UK we have a history over four decades of teaching quantum information theory and quantum computing. That has helped attract the best people from the UK and from outside the country.”
How does the UK quantum sector compare to other countries?
While the UK has led the way on quantum software, when it comes to hardware, US companies dominate with nine of the top ten fastest quantum computers based on the other side of the Atlantic.
The US launched its own national quantum strategy in December 2018, pledging $1.2bn to back the National Quantum Initiative Act. This came just after the European Union had launched its own quantum flagship with €1bn funding. More recently, Germany has revealed a five-year quantum funding programme worth €2bn, and is currently constructing its first national quantum computer, in conjunction with IBM. France has got in on the act, and earlier this month officially launched its €1.8bn quantum strategy, and is developing a national hybrid quantum platform which it hopes will be used by a range of different industries.
As national funding grows, quantum financing from the private sector has also rocketed. Data from Pitchbook shows more than $1bn of venture capital cash was ploughed into quantum companies in 2021, up from $684m in 2020.
Is the UK keeping pace with this fast-moving sector? "France, Germany and the UK are definitely leading the way on quantum, not only in Europe but in the world," Shiraz argues. "If you look at the scale of funding and involvement I think the UK sits very well on a global basis, and I think it will remain front and centre of that ecosystem."
Professor Morton agrees. "There haven't been any new funding announcements [in the UK] recently, but the government programmes have been significant," he says. "We're in the middle of one of those at the moment, and quantum has emerged as a topic which is on the lips of the prime minister and his chief scientist, which is new and promising."
How can the UK grow its quantum computing capabilities?
The current phase of governmental quantum funding runs until 2025, and Professor Morton says developing talent will be key to the next tranche of funding if the UK is to remain competitive. Like many tech sectors, quantum faces a skills shortage as commercial opportunities for deploying the technology develop at a faster rate than the talent pool grows. Industry body techUK says more than 400 quantum PhDs have been created by 30 UK universities, but this number needs to grow.
"The industry is going to live or die by the talent it can hire," says Professor Morton. "The UK has done a good job so far, and we've developed programs in quantum computing and quantum technology that have been very successful and become models that have been applied elsewhere in the world. Maintaining that stream of bright people, training them in quantum technologies, and then establishing the pipeline that allows them to take the jobs that we're creating in quantum computing is really critical."
Competition is likely to increase, too, as enthusiasm for quantum computing grows among businesses. According to a survey of 400 C-Suite executives by Accenture last year, 80% of UK companies have plans to scale quantum technologies in their organisations, putting the country ahead of the US (74%) and the global average (62%). Tech consultancies are also building out their quantum capabilities: last week French IT services provider CapGemini announced the launch of a quantum lab which will enable its clients to access and experiment with quantum technologies.
"As start-ups grow and bigger companies build out their quantum teams, you need people to fill those jobs and at the moment the supply isn't enough," says Morton.
However, Morton adds, the absence of tech giants in the UK is not necessarily a disadvantage for the country's quantum sector. "Quantum is such a new frontier that it's an area where you can look beyond the usual suspects, the Googles and the Microsofts, in terms of who is going to deliver the real breakthroughs," he explains. "In conventional computing, the interface and the platform and the customer base really matter because the hardware is operating at a broadly similar level.
"With quantum, if someone comes out with a system that has a higher number of qubits or higher fidelity (reliability) then people will use it. I think that provides huge opportunities for new players to disrupt the field and that's why there's so much excitement about it."