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19 December 2013

Why the UK should invest in quantum computing research

For all the potential of the field, it seems that no one who is doing the work is interested in making pots of cash.

By Michael Brooks

In his Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that the UK government will provide £270m to build a national network of quantum technology research centres. The idea is to “support [the] translation of the UK’s world-leading quantum research into application and new industries”. The money would no doubt be welcome but there is a fundamental mismatch between the aims of the government and the aims of scientists. Einstein said it more than 50 years ago: “Only when we do not have to be accountable to anybody can we find joy in scientific endeavour.”

“Quantum” is more than just a buzzword: there is perhaps very little as exciting as this area of research. It concerns the strange behaviour of things at the level of atoms and molecules downwards. There is “superposition”, in which an atom or a photon of light can do two contradictory things at once, such as simultaneously existing in two different places. Then there is “entanglement”, in which particles share a ghostly, almost telepathic connection. Another celebrated oddity is the uncertainty principle, which demonstrates a fundamental limit to what is possible for us to find out about a quantum system.

We fund research into these areas knowing that there is barely an area of scientific inquiry that hasn’t yielded something that is useful or profitable eventually. In the quantum arena, however, few people are making a profit yet. Quantum computers, which use superposition and entanglement to create computing power beyond anything ordinary computers will ever achieve, are far from a commercial proposition. Quantum cryptography is a little closer to market. This hangs on the delicate nature of entanglement: it ensures that tampering with or eavesdropping on communications is always detectable. Less exciting quantum technologies, such as highly sophisticated sensors and measuring techniques, are likely to be the first areas to generate financial gains.

For all this potential, it seems that no one who is doing the work is interested in making pots of cash. Take Raymond Laflamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing in Ontario. He was one of the speakers at the Bloomberg Enterprise Technology Summit in London on 10 December. His talk was hosted by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, which no doubt hopes that quantum technology will make the state money. Yet it’s grappling with the nature of the universe, not the lure of lucre, that motivates Laflamme.

More frustrating for the purse holders is that science is now done in global collaborations with no guarantee of payback for individual nations. Quantum scientists also openly help the competition. Laflamme’s deputy, Michele Mosca, is on the board of advisers of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore: he actively assists Asia-based quantum researchers to do better things.

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That must be particularly hard for the Business Secretary, Vince Cable. One of the researchers Mosca helps is his his son: the Singapore-based theoretical physicist Hugo Cable. Vince once suggested Hugo give up quantum physics and make his fortune in finance. Hugo said he wasn’t “that desperate” and went to Singapore, where there was money to do the esoteric quantum science he loves. So perhaps this latest initiative is also a father’s attempt to lure his son back home.

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