Quantum technology – how do the opportunities stack up?
Quantum technologies are receiving billions of dollars in funding. This is because of their disruptive potential, whether it’s vastly more powerful computing, better sensing or more reliable timing and navigation. In the UK alone, the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme is investing £1 billion over 10 years, while the US has announced $1bn new funding for 12 new research hubs. The private sector has more than kept up. In Cambridge, for example, Nu Quantum and Riverlane are among those bringing in VC money for cyber security and quantum computing applications respectively.
In the next 20 years, quantum is set to significantly improve reliability, speed, accuracy and security of products and services. It is both an opportunity and a threat for cyber security, it will enable new medical diagnostics and pharmaceutical techniques, dramatically improve the precision of navigation above and below water, reveal potential earthquakes and more.
This signals a real commercial opportunity across the technology stack, and ecosystem, that will ultimately make quantum a technology that business can use. It includes everything from lasers and components of optical circuits at the bottom of the stack to the algorithms that will run on quantum computers to revolutionise drug discovery at the top of the stack.
But, as with any new technology, commercialisation is full of challenges for investors and businesses. For instance, developing software for the upper end of the stack is hard if you don’t yet know what the bottom end looks like. And developing the hardware and components is risky because it takes time and money, and it simply might not work. In short, when it comes to how mature the ecosystem is, quantum is roughly where classical computers were in the 1970s: computers allowed breakthroughs and made routine tasks easier, but they needed specialists to programme them to solve specific problems. A general-purpose computer with an operating system capable of supporting software was still a decade away.
So how can technology developers find a place in this developing world and exploit the opportunity?
The short answer is that anyone looking to thrive in the world of quantum will need to understand how the whole chain from qubits, components and electronics to operating systems and algorithms works. That will either mean being a big player, or being part of a consortium that knows the ecosystem well enough to bridge the likely compatibility gaps between the different parts.
Seeing the potential of quantum
The opportunity is certainly worth investigating. Broadly, the disruptive potential for quantum systems comes in three forms:
In security, there’s timing - providing precision time information to assure financial trades without relying on GPS, which can be easily and cheaply manipulated, or Quantum Key Distribution that instantly signals attempts to eavesdrop communications.
Using atoms to sense or measure acceleration means a drift-free navigation system, while gravity and electromagnetism measurements let us see deeper underground and through previously impenetrable barriers. We can even use the quantum properties of photons to look around corners.
Quantum computing comes with two approaches. There are annealers, like D-Wave, developed by IBM and Honeywell, which are great for optimisation problems and could drastically improve supply chain control, as well as financial portfolio management. And there are quantum gate computers that are more flexible and reprogrammable, allowing access to a wider range of problems including mimicking the chemistry behind pharmaceutical development, for instance.
Tackling the R&D challenges
So where might a would-be quantum player make the biggest difference? I’ve spent a reasonable fraction of the last couple of years developing quantum sensors and applications for quantum computers. One thing our teams have noticed is that the problems we’re talking about are largely engineering ones.
We need to invent new technologies, but there are now enough well-understood physics concepts for us to be able to move on to exploitation. And that ‘just’ needs standard engineering - thermal management, system integration, control electronics, cloud connectivity and so on, with some advice from the physicists.
From there, we could see that it’s best to think of quantum as a system, and just another technology in the toolkit that you then integrate with others to get full value from it.
Scaling and commercialising quantum technologies
Creating a commercial quantum system for an average user without several degrees means creating a whole hardware and software ecosystem. We won’t just see a ‘new Google’, which in this case might actually be Google. It’s reasonable to expect a mature quantum technology ecosystem to include equivalents for ARM and Intel. And Texas Instruments. And Apple, Microsoft, Netgear, Foxconn, Xilinx, Nvidia … Some of these will be incumbents doing something new, but others will be new companies that might not exist yet. It’s easy to see Google developing quantum-based search or data processing. But developing proteins? Maybe not.
There’s a clear opportunity with quantum technologies to create a new ecosystem, from miniaturising optical or vacuum parts to quantum operating systems, apps and algorithms, and maybe even Q-SaaS. As we’ve seen, it’s still developing, highly fragmented and not massively vertically integrated. The best bet for new companies is to group together in consortia that combine the relevant expertise to answer the many questions ahead. They’ll also need access to organisations with relevant problems for the technology to solve – problems not already being worked on by the tech behemoths.
It will feel like a long game now. But when the ecosystem comes together, it will be the signal for quantum to move from a specialist, niche technology to a generally useful one that repays all those VC investors many times over.