Can Europe beat China and the US in quantum computing?
As funding pours into quantum computing, investors are focused on the potential for this technology to address scientific, business and security problems beyond the reach of today’s conventional computers. There are signs that dramatic impacts could come in the not-too-distant future, according to industry executives who spoke at the Goldman Sachs 2023 Disruptive Technology Symposium.
A key question during the event was whether the development of quantum computing will follow a path of globalization or fragment into a regional approach. This is particularly relevant at a time when supply chains are on the minds of policy makers and business leaders, having become a source of geopolitical tension and showing indications of fragility during the pandemic.
Ilyas Khan, vice chairman and founder of Quantinuum, said during a panel on quantum computing that he sees the impulse for national control over the development of quantum computing technology. Work his company is doing in the U.S. is subject to a National Security Agreement that is governed by various federal agencies. In many countries, development of quantum computing technology is governed by national organizations, and the intensity of their attention and investment is a historic development, he said.
“I’m not aware of anything since the Industrial Revolution that even comes close to resembling the resources that are being managed at a national level in order to gain competitive advantage for individual countries,” Khan said. “When that happens, you get overlap, you get competition, you get suspicion, and in the early days you possibly get fences and borders and walls. And that is what is happening in quantum at the moment.” Among many things that may eventually counter these trends and favor globalization, Khan said, will be the willingness of investors and corporate clients to look worldwide for the best ideas in quantum computing.
At the same time, there are significant military and cyber security concerns, as quantum computing is potentially powerful enough to overwhelm existing encryption protocols. The disruption that quantum computing promises won’t just be in the business sphere but also in the national security arena, Stephen Nundy, chief technology officer for Lakestar, a European venture capital fund, told the symposium.
Nundy suggested this lends added urgency to questions about who will lead in developing this new technology. Europeans mostly watched from the sidelines as U.S. companies scaled up cloud computing businesses that are now dominant, he said, and they should be wary of doing the same in quantum computing. Europe would be making a poor choice to simply wait for a copy of the blueprint of quantum technology from the U.S. or Asia, rather than developing its domestic industry and expertise, he said.
Interdependence is another theme that is emerging as the quantum computing technology ecosystem develops. Pia Lemmetty, head of finance for IQM Quantum Computers in Finland, described her company’s decision to build a pilot foundry for quantum processors. The initial aim was to be able to design chips and manufacture them in-house, but other startups that don’t have foundry capability have started reaching out, she said. “It will be very important to think about the European angle and ensure that we have capabilities in Europe to be self reliant on the hardware development side,” Lemmetty said.
Lemmetty said her company is already beginning to work with corporate clients to design adaptations of quantum computing algorithms and solutions and then to develop hardware specifications to address industry-relevant problems. This will help ensure that businesses are building expertise and are enabled when a “quantum advantage” emerges, she said. “The time is very much now to start doing that.”
Markus Pflitsch, founder and CEO of Terra Quantum, agreed that corporate clients should start building relationships and expertise now. His Switzerland-based company is developing quantum algorithms, software that can run today on classical computers, while the development of quantum hardware proceeds. This hybrid approach, using simulated qubits, is already demonstrating some of what may be possible — collective portfolio modeling for the investment industry, for example, or optimized satellite mission planning.
These algorithms may begin to reach their full potential when the hardware advances. But Pflitsch said companies should recognize the coming disruption and begin to work with quantum computing technology as soon as possible. “We have a growing number of clients,” Pflitsch said. “We can deliver business value today.”
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