EU runs to catch up as governments pledge more cash for quantum computing

08 Nov 2018 | News

The EU’s €1B ten-year Quantum Technologies Flagship finally got off the ground with the award of €132M spread across 20 projects. But is it too little, too late?

Governments around the world are buying into quantum computing research, with current funding to the tune of $2.2 billion per year, according to one report. And that figure looks set to increase with new commitments from the US, China, and half a dozen other countries.

This year, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore and the EU have made separate announcements of a total of €1.66 billion additional funding for quantum computing, to be spread over several years and on top of existing spending.   

But the US alone could come close to matching that figure, with the US Senate due to vote soon on the National Quantum Initiative Act, which would commit $1.275 billion to the new technology.

China, meanwhile, may be leaving other governments behind, having this year reportedly added 1 billion yuan (€127 million) to last year's $10 billion public investment in the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Services currently under construction in Anhui province.

Don’t sprinkle the money

But how investments in quantum computing are divided up may be as important as overall spending. Last Monday (29 October) saw the first slice of the European Commission's long-promised €1 billion funding for quantum computing, in the form of €132 million spread across 20 separate projects.

Lieven Vandersypen, professor of quantum physics at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, told Science|Business spreading the money too thinly will not achieve much: concentration matters just as much as overall investment. “The European approach tends to be sprinkling the money over many groups,” said Vandersypen. And he noted, of the €132 million awarded, “only €20 million goes to focused efforts on quantum computing.”

The US quantum bill, by contrast, is “going for really large, focused efforts,” says Vandersypen. The proposed National Quantum Initiative Act would divide a total $1.275 billion into three chunks: $400 million over five years to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which tackles hard science with a view to boosting national competitiveness; $250 million over five years for educational efforts led by the National Science Foundation; and $625 million over five years for research by the Department of Energy.

Tommaso Calarco, theoretical physicist at the Helmholtz Centre in Jülich, pushed back against the criticism that the EU’s efforts lack heft, arguing that focusing too much on building the hardware would be “completely suicidal.” Calarco stressed the importance of research into industrial applications for the technology, such as secure communications. “Our capability in industry is exploited in the best way only if we keep this breadth of approach,” he told Science|Business.

Security concerns drive investment

Much of the $200 million per year the US already spends on quantum computing comes from national security and defence budgets. The Council on Foreign Relations has described the “quantum race” as one “the United States can't afford to lose,” stressing the importance of quantum computing for military and intelligence applications such as navigational systems, radar, and cryptography.  

Calarco says early investment in quantum computing was mostly driven by security concerns, with the drive for industrial competitiveness coming later. “Until a few years ago, quantum computers could break all existing cryptographic protocols. Now we have seen the development of new protocols with so-called ‘post quantum cryptography.’ So now there are algorithms that run on classical computers which are not crackable by any existing and known quantum computing algorithm.”

However, Calarco added that "no one can exclude that in the future, the most powerful quantum algorithms may imperil even the so-called post quantum algorithms."

With security concerns not going away and with expressions like “quantum race” gaining currency, breathless comparisons to the Manhattan Project and the space race are never far behind.

The UK government last week announced a £235 million five-year investment in quantum computing in addition to £80 million announced in September. A key feature of the UK strategy is the establishment of the National Quantum Computing Centre, with the goal of winning “the race to build the world’s first universal quantum computer.”

Also in September, the German federal government announced €650 million funding for quantum computing, from 2018-2022, more than the planned contributions of all member states combined to the Commission's €1 billion ten year Quantum flagship. The German strategy targets several aspects of quantum computing beyond the raw science, from basic R&D to real-world commercialisation.

Other countries announced new public funding for quantum computing this year, albeit in smaller amounts. In its 2018 budget, the government of Canada allocated €10 million to the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing. In 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines around the world with a not entirely unsuccessful attempt to explain quantum computing.

The Australian Research Council this year awarded €21.33 million to the Centre for Quantum Computation at the University of New South Wales and €20.19 million to the Centre for Engineered Quantum Systems at Queensland University, alongside additional investments from other participating organizations of three and two times as much respectively.

In September, Singapore's National Research Council (NRC) announced it would invest €16 million in the new Quantum Engineering Programme, which will work on applications for quantum computing in secure communications, devices, and networks. Singapore was an early investor in quantum computing, having provided support as far back as 2007 for the establishment of the Centre for Quantum  Technologies at the National University of Singapore.

Weird laws of quantum physics

While current computers rely on binary sequences of zeros and ones, where each digit is one bit, quantum computing harnesses the unfathomably weird laws of quantum physics, where subatomic particles can be in two different states at the same time. That, in principle, allows for much more sophisticated code based on “quantum bits” or “qubits,” which can be some strange combination of one and zero at the same time.

In theory, a universal quantum computer will be capable of doing anything classical computers can do, in addition to functions exclusive to quantum computing. In practice, any such computer will still have some capacity limitations, just as some current computers have greater capabilities than others.

The point is to build a machine that adds the capabilities of quantum computing without sacrificing the functionality of classical computing. Experimental quantum computers that exist today cannot outperform classical computers on their own turf. The race, then, is not to produce the first quantum computer, but the first fully-functional quantum computer.

But it is not all about being first, argues Vandersypen, who is working in QuTech, the Dutch government-backed project to build a fully-functional quantum computer. “The targets should be broader than simply building the first quantum computer, if nothing else because there is no broadly-accepted definition of what ‘the first quantum computer,’ means,” Vandersypen told Science|Business.

“There is no clear finish line, so I don’t know how important it is [to be first]. But it is important to be competitive, and not to fall behind,” he said.

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