First there was analogue, then came digital, next is quantum. The coming age is set to transform the economy and society alike. Appreciation of the technology’s potential, however, was for a long time confined to futurlogy, science fiction and the study of physics. Yet, it would appear that Westminster has joined the fray.
In 2013, the government embarked on the first phase of the National Quantum Programme, an ambitious initiative to back the UK’s quantum sector and accelerate the road from the laboratory to commercialisation, committing £270 million to creating a new industry.
The Autumn Budget reaffirmed quantum’s position at the heart of Britain’s modern industrial strategy, with the chancellor making the case for the sector and promising further funds to drive progress. Parliament’s science and technology select committee has this month shown its hand and wholeheartedly backed the government in commissioning the second phase of the National Quantum programme, advocating the UK seize the top spot internationally and reap the economic, technological and societal benefits that are to be gained.
Set against the Brexit backdrop, this is a welcome moment of optimism and will sound the starting pistol in the race for quantum supremacy, but can the underdog Brit clinch gold?
If we look at the quantum opportunity, the investments being made by the world’s biggest technology companies, let alone countries, support the case that we are on to something huge.
A quantum computer has the potential to unlock near limitless processing power, and the ability to deal with calculations, codes and models of unimaginable complexity at unprecedented speeds. The implications for financial markets, security, AI and machine learning are profound.
The government has recognised the critical importance of quantum for the UK economy and got to grips with the scale of the proposition. From computing to time keeping, navigation to civil engineering, transport to healthcare, quantum is going to touch every corner of society.
Already, everything that we are achieving at this early stage in quantum is more advanced and more accurate than the current state of the art digital technology. As history remembers, the early movers in tech are more often than not those that reach the top and stay there. Clearly considerable progress has been made but there is much more to be done.
Quantum technology can be at the heart of the post-Brexit economy: the UK cementing its reputation for innovation, setting the global agenda for quantum advance. If we look at the levels of investment pouring into AI and machine learning companies, we see the appetite to get behind technology that has the power to change the world. Quantum is the key to unlocking the disruptive potential of these technologies.
But with China declaring itself a quantum superpower and committing the resources to make big strides, and the US following in its footsteps, how can Britain keep pace?
The science and technology committee’s report, published on 6 December, advocates for additional specialist quantum hubs to be built across the country. Regional investment will help to diversify the sector and spur tech clusters across the nation to take root.
We are already seeing the benefits. Quantum and advanced manufacturing have been integral to the transformation of cities such as Glasgow, a place that for too long was shrouded by its post-industrial struggles. Now a hub of scientific and technological excellence, Glasgow is home to businesses and research institutions that are driving the international quantum landscape.
Essential to the UK’s quantum opportunity is collaboration. Quantum has uniquely benefited from major engagement between research institutions, commercial partners and government-backed initiatives. The integration of academia and industry has yielded exceptional results for UK quantum.
Quantum technology isn’t simple and requires individuals with the highest skillsets to be drawn into the sector. In the immediate future, we must look at the talent pipeline and develop strategies for filling the gaps. Investing in the infrastructure is vital, but concerns remain as to the talent that can push the industry forwards.
In the future, quantum technology can transform our economy and society. We now need to embrace the opportunity and recognise it as fundamental to the nation’s prosperity.
Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE is the chief executive of quantum & photonics company M Squared