Will the EU’s magnificent Flagship win the geopolitical Quantum race?

The splendour of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace saw the kickoff of the 20 projects that are the initial phase of the Europe’s €1b Quantum Flagship programme. The vision on display was impressive and wide ranging. It was also constrained by the limited resources so far committed and the unique politics of the EU.

The Quantum Flagship is the EU’s drive to capture the economic benefits of the Second Quantum Revolution. Conceived following the publication of the Quantum Manifesto in 2016 [8] it has been launched as part of the overarching Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. It promotes European leadership in four key areas of quantum technology:

  • Quantum communications
  • Quantum computing
  • Quantum simulation
  • Quantum sensing and metrology

Speaking at the kickoff in Vienna, Jürgen Mlynek, chair of the high-level-steering committee, introduced the programme and its ambitious goals over 3, 6 and 10 years [6]. The first 20 projects will drive the ramp-up phase of the Flagship over the next 3 years. Full implementation and future waves of projects will follow from 2020. Committed spend is currently €1b over 10 years. Alongside this, QuantERA continues as a vehicle for joint international quantum research funding across the wider European area [35].

Quantum Communications – a Quantum Internet for Europe

Stephanie Wehner presented an exciting and expansive vision of the benefits of a full scale Quantum Internet. This vision goes far beyond the applications of quantum safe cryptography most usually discussed. A network allowing truly quantum coherent data transfers over long ranges would have security built-in. More importantly it would allow clusters of quantum computing devices to be linked processing natively quantum data. Furthermore, users could perform computations in this quantum cloud with absolute confidence that even their service provider could not gain knowledge of the nature of the application they were running. Other novel applications include secure position verification, password identification and ultra-precise clock synchronisation. Four closely complementary projects are supported by two basic science projects and related LEIT activities:

QIA is focussed on key enabling technologies for the Quantum Internet. This includes quantum repeaters (currently the missing link to enable coherent quantum communication beyond about 200km), multi-node linking of quantum processors, and the network software stack necessary to allow end user applications to take advantage of such links.

CiViQ seeks to develop continuous variable quantum communications technology. Some commentators have sought to dismiss quantum communication as incompatible with the mass internet. This newer variation of the more established discrete variable quantum technology offers the promise of compatibility with existing telecoms infrastructure hardware and software. This builds on recent field trials by Telefónica, Huawei, and UPM.

UNIQORN extends this vision by seeking to develop the low-cost chip-scale devices that will support quantum communications on handheld and IoT devices.

QRANGE is seeking to provide a family of cheaper, faster and more secure QRNG devices, together with the standardisation and certification processes to ease their commercial adoption. Classical cryptography and emerging hybrid schemes to respond to the future threat posed by quantum computers emphasise the benefits of using true random numbers. Quantum cryptography company IDQ is a notable collaborator.

S2QUIP and 2D-SIPC are basic science projects set to support this area by developing advanced PIC and on-chip single photon source and detection technologies. Startup Single Quantum is part of this effort.

In 2019 these projects are expected to be complemented by LEIT projects to create a European QKD testbed network and related space research activity.

A key goal of these ramp-up phase projects is a blueprint for how these technologies could be scaled-up into a pan-European quantum network. If the benefits beyond cryptography of this approach can be achieved then this would indeed be a landmark infrastructure achievement. Any institute or company without access to this new enabling resource would not be part of the 21st century’s premier league.

Quantum Computing – the race to build the first large scale universal device

The revolutionary potential of quantum computing is the best known promise of the quantum technology sector. The Flagship naturally has a major focus in this area, but its specific direction might surprise a casual observer. Headline press releases from tech majors such as Google, IBM and Intel have tended to focus on superconducting qubit technology, the Flagship funding has supported both this and trapped ion qubit technology on an equal basis. Frank Wilhelm-Mauch outlined a well balanced programme.

AQTION is seeking to create a 50 qubit trapped ion device, not just ‘in the lab’, but as a standard 19″ rack installation. A key advantage of this approach is that it does not require the ultra-cryogenic temperatures required by many other quantum technologies, though it does require a scaleable solution to be developed for the complex laser control system required. Atos is a notable collaborator.

MicroQC strengthens the trapped ion technology portfolio by seeking to prove the viability of an important alternative method that greatly reduces control system complexity – the use of global microwave field driven gates. The attractiveness of this technique has recently received a significant boost by the publication of new results demonstrating impressive noise resilience [34].

OpenSuperQ seeks to create a 50-100 superconducting qubit device. This may appear to be playing catch-up with the efforts of Google, IBM and Intel, but the ‘distributed’ construction approach being employed can expect to see it benefit from both the group’s long academic experience in this area and also that of its sub-component collaborators (such as Zurich Instruments in quantum control electronics and Bluefors in cryogenics).

QMiCS is a basic science project that aims to overcome one of the key obstacles faced by superconducting qubit devices – how to coherently link devices between cryostat enclosures. Without such links superconducting qubit devices will struggle to scale-up and compete with other technologies in the long term. This microwave single photon detection technology also promises to have applications to quantum radar.

SQUARE is a basic science project that seeks to establish the viability of rare earth ions as another novel qubit platform, with the particular advantage of uniquely high qubit density.

A common goal of these initiatives is not just to achieve threshold for quantum advantage (typically estimated to require about 50 high-quality qubits), but to do this within a scalable, fault tolerant architecture, supported by the development of the full software stack required for the development of practical applications.

Notable by its absence from the initial list of projects is coverage of silicon spin qubit technology. This area is highly regarded by some because of its easy leverage of existing CMOS fabrication techniques and promise of slightly relaxed cryogenic cooling requirements (though some are sceptical as it has not yet demonstrated adequate 2-qubit gate fidelity performance). A supplementary call for proposals is being considered specifically to add this to the Flagship programme.

Quantum Simulation – from intelligent drug design to revolutionary new materials

A unique aspect of the EU Quantum Flagship has been its separate emphasis on Quantum Simulation. In most other national initiatives this is taken to be part of a more widely drawn definition of quantum computing. Indeed, in the long-term a universal quantum computer will likely takeover the task of simulating quantum systems in chemistry, materials science and fundamental research. However, in the medium term NISQ era, simpler task oriented devices have the opportunity to explore a variety of analogue simulation techniques and other novel problem solving approaches. Augusto Smerzi outlined the projects in this pillar.

PASQuanS is building simulator platforms based on ultracold atoms and ions. It brings together 5 existing state-of-the-art experimental platforms. End-user engagement with companies such as Total, Bosch, Airbus, EdF and Siemens is being used to drive alignment with real commercial applications. Atos is again a collaborator.

Qombs is developing a simulator platform specifically aimed at supporting the design of new laser technology (specifically QCL and QCL-combs). These promise the controlled emission of entangled and squeezed light. This is an enabling technology for advanced quantum communications, medical and environmental sensors.

PhoG is a basic science project aimed at improving sources of squeezed and entangled light, with applications in quantum-enhanced imaging and atomic clock frequency stability.

PhoQus aims to develop a novel simulator platform based on photonic quantum fluids.

During the wait for universal quantum computers (and perhaps beyond) quantum simulators may offer early opportunities to tackle commercially relevant problems – from modelling molecular vibrations [25] to the abstract question of integer factorisation [33] .

Quantum Metrology and Sensing – from autonomous vehicles to medical diagnostics

Quantum technologies also promise to enable a new generation of measurement and sensing devices. This area is doubly interesting because of the prospect it offers for relatively rapid commercial progress. Florian Schreck outlined the Flagship ramp-up projects in this area:

ASTERIQS is developing NV diamond technology for the measurement of magnetic fields, electric fields, temperature and pressure. These have applications in medical scanning and diagnostics, optimising battery performance for electric cars, and energy efficient electronics. Aerospace and defence group Thales is co-ordinating this project.

MetaboliQs is specifically targeting using NV diamond technology to radically reduce the cost of hyperpolarised MRI imaging in the diagnosis of heart disease. This promises to greatly expand the employment of this powerful technique.

MacQsimal is aiming to develop a family of miniaturised atomic vapour cell based sensors. This technology is able to measure magnetic fields, time and rotation, as well as enabling related sensors for electromagnetic radiation and gas concentration. While this is an established sensing technique, the radically reduced size, integration and reduced cost of these MEMS devices promises to open up new applications.

iqClock is seeking to bring the ultra-precise performance of optical atomic clocks from the lab to affordable and widely deployable devices. This is important not just for GNSS systems, but also to reduce our reliance on implicit GNSS time signals for infrastructure network synchronisation. Chronos Technology is a collaborator.

Notable by their absence perhaps are cold atom matter interferometry and quantum enhanced imaging technologies. These areas may be added in the future, however for the moment they are well covered in initiatives such as the UKNQT programme which look to provide a very complementary fit with this pillar.

Not yet a “moonshot”

While the Flagship programme has great vision, €1b over 10 years does not go far. Only 20 projects from 140 proposals could be funded. Many interesting initiatives have been left on hold for now. There are areas of perceived weakness – while developing the necessary operating software is intrinsic to many projects, the top application layer of software (where ultimate business value lies) seems under-represented. Quantum computing will under-deliver on its promise without further progress on quantum algorithms. The Flagship does build-in a user perspective, but little funding seems available at the moment to further drive active engagement of this audience.

To compound the funding pressure, in reality only half of the headline €1b figure is provided centrally by the EU – project funding must be matched at national level. The centre is thus seeding this initiative with only €50m per year ($57m/yr).  Additional European nation-state quantum programmes are essential to the strategy. Several significant national initiatives are underway:

  • The German government has recently announced its plans for €650m funding of quantum technology between 2018-22 ($148m/yr).
  • The Netherlands has announced €135m funding over 10 years for QuTech, its established quantum centre of excellence ($15m/yr).
  • Sweden has a  €97m funding over 10 years for WACQT ($11m/yr).
  • The UK has its long-standing UKNQT programme, with funding recently confirmed for its second phase
    • phase 1 – initially £270m, later augmented to £385m between 2014-2019 ($100m/yr).
    • phase 2 – budget of £315m for 2019-2024 ($82m/yr).

Impact of Brexit: The UK government has financially underwritten the participation of UK groups in current Horizon 2020 initiatives (including the ramp-up phase of the Quantum Flagship) against any Brexit outcome. It has also expressed its desire for an ongoing associative relationship with future Horizon Europe initiatives (which will include the completion of the Flagship programme).

Quantum sector activity is rapidly increasing around the world:

  • China is building a new National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Hefei with a reported budget of $10b.
  • The US House of Representatives has passed the NQIA. If confirmed by the Senate, this envisages $1.3b over 5 years (c. $260m/yr).
  • Australia, Canada, Singapore, Japan and Russia all also have significant programmes.

In truth, direct comparison of these investments is difficult. They are built on very different patterns of existing basic science funding, existing national laboratory facilities and patterns of research funding by large commercial organisations.

For example the EU Flagship project AQTION, which is seeking to build a trapped ion quantum computer demonstrator, will receive about €10m over 3 years (the allied project MicroQC will receive about €3m in addition). As a comparison, in 2015 Intel provided $50m funding as part of its 10 year partnership with QuTech. Quantum startup D-Wave Systems has secured funding of £30m in 2017 and £30m in 2018 (a total of $205m since 1999). Rigetti secured $90m in 2017 ($120m since 2013).

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, very significant sums will be available. However, again the comparison is misleading. Products naturally require significantly higher levels of investment as they move on from lab demonstrator to commercial prototype and launch.

Winning the quantum race

Quantum technology has important security and defence implications. It creates new cybersecurity threats and solutions, it offers to remove important vulnerabilities to the disruption of our satellite systems, it creates new remote sensing and detection possibilities (perhaps even undermining current submarine and stealth technologies). However the future economic role of the quantum technology sector is of perhaps of even greater geopolitical significance. China, the US and the EU are increasingly positioning themselves in the race to secure these benefits.

While today’s projects have very worthwhile goals, the real political point of public investment is not just the research per se. More important to securing long term national advantage is capturing an enduring place in the emerging quantum ecosystem: research centres of excellence, skilled staff, knowledgeable investors, startups and specialists SMEs. The cluster benefits that these factors bring attract the major inward investment and spiraling business activity that later follow.

To kickstart such high-tech clusters, a central consideration are the needs of the expert staff themselves: first and foremost exciting opportunities to work at the forefront of their fields, access to technical facilities and cross disciplinary support. However in the medium term it’s also about the possibility to move on to other opportunities, perhaps in startup or established businesses. In the end it’s also about the environment where they want to live and raise their families (and ultimately draw their pensions).

The Quantum Flagship naturally seeks to make a strength of the EU’s wide academic base and the opportunity to add value by forging connections across its internal boundaries between companies and institutes. It will be more difficult however for it to find political agreement for a focus on the development of specific centres of excellence. China on the other hand is seemingly well-placed to order a mobilisation of resources on priority projects and at selected geographic centres. However this may be a real test for the resurgent centralism in the Chinese system – their scientists will have their own priorities and personal goals within what is an increasingly affluent middle class (Chinese Big Tech firms abroad are already at pains to copy the western practice of establishing research offices in lifestyle friendly university locations). The US has benefitted from the strength of its academic institutes and the cash of its major commercial companies, but its government is only now playing catch-up in co-ordinating and fully leveraging these efforts.

Fact Based Insight remains excited to be following the evolution of this remarkable sector.

Actions for Business

Fact Based Insight’s recommendations for business across the areas addressed by the Quantum Flagship are covered in detail in our report The Second Quantum Revolution – Actions for Business.

David Shaw

About the Author

David Shaw has worked extensively in consulting, market analysis & advisory businesses across a wide range of sectors including Technology, Healthcare, Energy and Financial Services. He has held a number of senior executive roles in public and private companies. He has a degree in Physics from Oxford University, a PhD in Particle Physics from UCL and is a member of the Institute of Physics.