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.
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.
China’s rising prominence in quantum technology has been built on a steady increase in support through the 11th, 12th and 13th Five Year plans (2006-20). $987m of central funds have been spent over this period, supplemented by contributions of about $500m from individual provinces [40, 82]. Researchers who previously often completed their training abroad have been encouraged to return home and have turned centres such as USTC in Hefei into world-class hubs of quantum expertise, training a new generation of home-grown talent. China has a world-leading programme for the rollout of QKD. USTC have reported performance results for a 12-qubit superconducting device and reported the fabrication of a 24-quibt device. Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Huawei all have quantum investments.
National Laboratory of Quantum Information Science (NLQIS) – Construction is underway on what will be the world’s largest quantum research facility, the NLQIS in Hefei. This HQ location will focus on photonic, NV diamond and silicon spin qubit technology as well as quantum communications and quantum sensing. NLQIS Beijing branch will focus on theory, trapped ion and topological qubits. Shanghai branch will focus on superconducting qubits and ultra-cold atoms, and free-space quantum communication.
China is now preparing a major 10-15 year National Science and Technology Project on Quantum Information that it sees as echoing the EU Flagship and US NQI. Many expect China to invest even more heavily in quantum technology as part of the 14th Five Year plan (2021-26) and beyond. Mooted elements include further funding of the NLQIS (the much reported $10b), QKD network rollout to all provinces, a constellation of quantum satellites, a high precision ground based timing service and competing in the race to build a large scale quantum computer.
Quantum Moonshot – A very striking mission is championed by China’s Jian-Wei Pan (USTC) – to demonstrate quantum entanglement between the Moon and the Earth. Literally a moonshot, combining China’s aspiration in space and quantum technologies. Offering a separation of 1.28 light seconds, this promises to allow test of quantum mechanics to be performed with a human observer in the loop. Such a mission could do for popular interpretations of quantum mechanics, what Galileo did for interpretations of the solar system.
The US has for many years been a leader in quantum technology and previously felt no need for a centrally co-ordinated programme focused on this area. Rising international competition overturned that view and the US entered 2019 with the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) freshly signed into law. The NQI sets up a 10 year programme to address the full range of quantum technologies with an envisaged spend for 2019-23 of $1.3b. The National Quantum Coordination Office (White House OSTP) has been formed and membership of the NQI Advisory Committee is being finalised. Proposals for an initial round of QIS Research Centers (DoE) and Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes (NSF) are currently being evaluated. The existing funding of quantum initiatives has been ongoing.
A striking success of this mobilising year for the NQI has been the momentum built-up by the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) co-ordinated by NIST. 96 entities have joined, of which 74 are corporations, including all of the US quantum majors such as Google, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. The US also benefits from the intellectual and financial infrastructure surrounding Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley – Knowhow in CMOS technology and an established community of deep tech investors have attracted not just home-grown but also international startups.. UK academic spinout PsiQ formalised its move to Palo Alto and has raised $230m. Australian Q-CTRL opened an office in LA, California as it raised $15m. Multiple home grown startups have raised significant sums.
Just how much in total Big Tech is already spending on quantum projects is not disclosed. However the total annual R&D budgets of these firms is impressive: Alphabet (Google) $16b, Huawei $13b, Intel $13b, Microscoft $12b, IBM $5b, Alibaba $4.0b, Tencent $2b, Baidu $1b. At the point that any of these companies choose to go ‘all-in’ on quantum technology, they have the potential to outspend all but a determined national programmes.
Economic opportunity, geopolitical threat
The existing and rising global powers all want their share of the future quantum economic pie. They don’t want their industry or their military to labour at a future disadvantage. On the other hand peaceful collaboration to develop science and technology is not a zero sum game, neither culturally nor economically.
These tensions are increasingly on show. Concern over the rise of quantum technology capabilities in China has been a significant factor driving the creation of the US NQI. However Jake Taylor (Assistant Dir. QIS White House) still struck a balanced tone speaking recently in Helsinki “China is a big part of the scientific community. It’s up to us to maintain a scientific culture. If we do it’s a great opportunity” but “There are real geopolitical and security risks which we cannot be blind to”. For many US friends and allies this will increasingly feel like a debate echoing that over Huawei’s participation in 5G networks. The US ITAR export control regime will force transparency on the status of any consortium collaborations potentially touched by its restrictions.
For Europe the challenge seems to come from both East and West. Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission) set this out in her incoming political statement “It may be too late to replicate hyperscalers [companies like Google, Amazon or Alibaba], but It is not too late to achieve technological sovereignty in some critical technology areas” before listing quantum computing as a key area for investment. Thierry Breton (European Commissioner for Internal Market) speaking about the QCI initiative echoed this theme “This project is critical to the EU’s technological sovereignty … Cooperation at European level will be paramount for the EU to thrive as a global competitor in quantum technologies”. Questions on ‘what constitutes a European company’ are already common place at European quantum conferences.
Leading Chinese quantum scientists, including Jian-Wei Pan, recently reaffirmed “We believe that China’s flagship project will not only enhance Chinese quantum technology but also benefit the whole global community”. It should also be respected that the 2019 Chinese Defence White Paper explicitly identifies quantum information as one of five technologies the application of which is gathering pace in the military field. Would any Western analyst disagree?
To watch in 2020
EU budget wrangling – The EU quantum programme should continue to build momentum. Expect the existing Flagship projects to be complemented by initiatives on silicon spin qubits and software. However 2020 will also see protracted arguments over the overall EU budget for 2021-27. Watch out for signs of impact on the budget for Horizon Europe and Digital Europe, and the space that leaves to fund quantum initiatives. Don’t expect a final answer till near the end of the year.
UK NQCC – A key feature of UK NQTP phase 2, construction of the central NQCC facility at Harwell is due to run throughout 2020. In the meantime watch out for the official launch event in Q1 2020 and hints on the technology roadmap the centre will develop. Watch also for the ramp-up of activity around the evolved phase 2 hubs.
UK Market Compass – Following in the footsteps of the ‘pioneer’ wave of ISCF projects currently underway, two more major waves of quantum projects are set to be announced, the first in Q1 the second later in the year. To observers of the quantum sector, these will give a major pointer to where UK Industry and UK Government see markets emerging.
Vive la France – French institutes and companies are already strong participants in the quantum sector within and without the EU’s Quantum Flagship. Will we see this effort further strengthened by the rollout of a French National Quantum Initiative?
US direction setting – After a year of mobilisation, we should see specifics emerge from the NQI. Watch out in Q1 for the first QIS Research Centers, and by March the NQI 5-year strategic plan. Later we should see the first round of Quantum Leap multidisciplinary education and research centers announced. By December we should see recommendations from the QED-C.
QED-C influence – The mobilisation of the QED-C has been a striking feature of the first year of the NQI. Watch out for how much influence the QED-C is able to bring to bear on NQI strategy. Will ‘big quantum’ in the US really be able to sing from the same hymn sheet?
China’s 14th Five-Year Plan – Previous plans have been instrumental in China’s rise to prominence in the field of Quantum Communications. Many expect the 2021-25 plan to promote an even more ambitious and rounded plan across quantum technologies. The plan will only be formally approved by the National People’s Congress in March 2021. However expect to see the proposed plan approved by the Central Committee of the CPC in Oct 2020. Early confirmation of the direction may also surface at the March 2020 NPC plenary and CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) National Committee session. Watch out for details emerging of a major National Project for Quantum Technologies.
NLQIS in Hefei – Set to be the largest quantum research facility in the world. Expect its opening in 2020 to cause further waves in the West.
Quantum Moonshot – Will China commit to Jian-Wei Pan’s most striking proposal – a mission to demonstrate quantum entanglement between the Moon and the Earth?