Building an ecosystem for breakthroughs

Why new quantum technologies deserve a bold investment strategy.

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Navigation systems that can operate without GPS, cameras that can see around corners, gravity sensors that can see through the ground, secure information and connectivity, super-accurate sensors for diagnosis, computers that can model and design new materials. These are some of the possibilities that come from harnessing the curious properties of quantum physics. A particle can appear to be in two places at once, in which two quantum objects can be entangled and the measurement of one tells you about the second even if it is far apart. In this advanced field, information coding doesn’t have to be the binary 1 or 0 but can be 1 and 0 at the same time.

The government’s ambition is to be at the forefront of cutting-edge quantum technologies to reap their benefits for society. In 2013, the government announced an investment of £270m into developing a National Quantum Technologies Programme over five years, to develop and commercialise quantum technologies, move them out of laboratories into the marketplace, to boost British business and place the UK as a leader in the global supply chain.

In 2016, at the mid-point of the programme, the Government Office for Science published a quantum technologies review, which explored how the UK could benefit from the research, development, and commercialisation of quantum technologies for the economy. Most recently, in the 2018 Autumn Budget, a further £235m was allocated to support quantum technologies, in addition to the £80m extension of the Quantum Technology Hubs. The aim is clear: to capture the ingenuity and creativity of our world-class research base and turn it into commercial advantage and societal benefits. And we are well positioned to be at the forefront of this new age of quantum technologies. In November last year, UK scientists built the world’s first quantum compass, a self-contained navigation device that does not rely on external signals and uses ultra-cold atoms rather than GPS satellites.

Of course, others have seen the opportunity too. China is investing billions of dollars and has its sights set on becoming a quantum superpower. The United States has passed legislation, is allocating resources and has created a new sub-committee in its National Science and Technology Council to co-ordinate research effort. Australia and Canada are developing their own ambitious programmes and the EU has established its exciting Quantum Technologies Flagship programme. As always in science, the advances will come from both close collaboration and keen competition, and the UK is good at both. Quantum technology is moving a pure science problem to an engineering challenge where industry, academia and government need to work closely together to achieve innovation. Investing in the skills for a future workforce, ensuring a strong pipeline of STEM and quantum-skilled talent to support demand for these skills, will be essential.

UK scientists have made considerable progress and government support has been fundamental to this success. The digital revolution created devices that impact every part of our lives, though many were hard to predict. Similarly, much of the promise of quantum technologies will only emerge through interactions between scientists, academics and users, brought together by the catalysis of initiatives such as the National Quantum Technologies Programme. The quantum age has the potential to change as much as the digital revolution, in ways that are rapidly emerging.

Patrick Vallance is the government’s chief scientific adviser and head of the Government Office for Science.