While quantum computers will never be used to perform mundane tasks, such as word processing or accounting, they will be able to solve certain problems that cannot be solved within a reasonable amount of time by conventional machines. A small number of those problems are so important that most countries in the industrial world are already investing in quantum computing, either to gain an early advantage or to keep from getting too far behind.
Researchers predict that once the technology is mastered, quantum computers will be used to do things like simulate complex bio-chemical systems and solve optimisation problems, such as finding the best route between two points or determining the optimal investment allocation in finance.
Theorists predict that quantum computing will even be able to crack today’s strongest encryption keys in a matter of minutes, rendering the secrets of any organisation or citizen transparent to any other country or private organisation that owns the technology. These are just a few of the areas where quantum computers are expected to have a huge advantage over classical computers.
The race is on among industrialised countries and trading blocks to master the technology – and three regional poles are emerging: the US, China and Europe. While Europe has already produced several quantum computers, none are as big or as sophisticated as those produced by IBM or by China.
According to Olivier Ezratty, author of Understanding quantum technologies 2023, the challenge for Europe is to position itself outside of where the US and China are likely end up in quantum computing. China and other Asian countries are usually very strong in manufacturing hardware, and the US typically leads in commercialising technology – thanks to a very large homogeneous internal market.
To help ensure Europe wins a niche in a post-quantum world, the European Quantum Flagship was formally launched in October 2018, and can expect to receive a total of €1bn to invest over a 10-year period.
The money will primarily back projects that help transform European research into commercial applications in four core areas: quantum computing; quantum simulation; quantum communication; and quantum sensing and metrology. The stated goal of the project is to make Europe one of the world’s leading regions for quantum expertise and innovation.
According to Ezratty, when it comes to quantum computing, Europe is already very well positioned in five key areas:
- Publicly funded research and academia;
- A dynamic industrial ecosystem;
- Leadership in enabling technology;
- Integration of high-performance computers and quantum systems;
- Responsible innovation.
Ezratty says that if you add up all the member states and the European Union (EU) itself, Europe is the world’s biggest public investor in quantum research. But the US has more overall funding from industry – thanks to companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel. The US also leads the world in the number of startups and how well those startups are funded.
“In any given technology, it’s often best to be the producer,” says Ezratty. “But if you cannot be the producer, you can have something to trade with the producer. Sometimes that gives you an even stronger hand – especially in an early market, when manufacturers aren’t yet making money selling products.
“In an early market, the organisations that make the enabling products and components can already make a very healthy profit. Once the market matures, the enabling technology is still important and can often be a more powerful bargaining chip than complete products.”
While Europe is already a producer of quantum computers, with the likes of IQM, Quandela, Pasqal and AQT, it also delivers much of the enabling technology, which may be even more important. According to Ezratty, Europe has already taken a lead in several important technologies that are required for quantum computing. These include cryogenics, special cables and connectors, and tools and techniques for integrating quantum computers with high-performance computers.
Cryogenic systems are needed to keep quantum computers at the very cold temperatures they need to operate. “Finnish company Bluefors is the clear worldwide leader in cryogenic systems used for quantum computing,” says Ezratty. “They have over 70% of that market. Second place goes to Oxford Instruments in the UK.”
Special cables are needed to perform input and output operations between qubits and traditional electronics. These cables need to interface with qubits without upsetting the extremely cold environments the qubits need to operate in. “Delft Circuits in the Netherlands is positioned to lead as this market takes off,” says Ezratty.
Connectors used for quantum computing must meet stringent requirements. French firm Radiall is already doing healthy business selling magnetically shielded connectors, miniature connectors and cryo switches for use in quantum systems. Ezratty says that like cables, connectors are particularly important in enabling communication between a very cold quantum environment and traditional electronics.
While there is currently no useful application of this arrangement, outside of academic research, it could be the forerunner of an important paradigm. Once quantum computers are able to solve useful problems, a supercomputer would be able to hand off specific tasks to a quantum system, where they can be carried out much quicker.
Beyond enabling technologies
As quantum computers become useful, the smart move for Europe will be to maintain its position in producing enabling technology, while moving up the value chain, where they will start seeing profits. Europe’s current investment in research – and the efforts in developing a diverse ecosystem around quantum technologies – will likely pay off by that time.
The European Quantum Flagship is making the right moves by encouraging collaborative research among member countries. Moreover, venture capitalists are betting on startups around the continent. A case in point is the French-based Quantonation, which claims to be the world’s “first early stage VC fund dedicated to deep physics and quantum technologies”. Quantonation has already funded 28 startups in eight countries, with the aim of commercialising the technology.
So far, quantum computing has not solved any useful problems – but when it does, Europe will be in the game. Perhaps more importantly, the member states are cooperating to meet a big global technological challenge as a union.