The race for a viable quantum computer is perhaps the most exciting in science today. Getting there will take a global effort. The complexity of some of the hurdles are arguably more challenging than those that were solved at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful atom smasher. Disparate networks of researchers, entrepreneurs, capital and governments will have to compete and collaborate all over the world.
Yet too much commentary, especially in the UK and Europe, fixates on where quantum innovation and commercialisation is happening.
This often manifests in short-sighted talk of a “brain drain” to the US. Recently, for example, a group of UK-based quantum technology academics moved to California to found a start-up called PsiQ, leading to claims that tech giants are “sucking the brains out of Europe”. This is nonsense.
It misunderstands the global nature of science and innovation, and underplays the UK’s exceptional strengths in quantum technology.
Most of the big venture capital investment in the sector has indeed been in North America. But the UK has a decades-long head start in quantum technologies. Consistent support from research councils and university departments have spurred crucial breakthroughs. These leaps in fundamental science — all from British laboratories — are the foundation of today’s global industry. It is what has drawn pioneers in quantum metrology such as Ed Hinds back to the UK from the US.
The British government’s foresight in founding the National Quantum Technologies Programme six years ago accelerated research and development, and stimulated private investment. Total UK government investment has now reached £1bn.
Since 2013, more than 30 start-ups, embedded in and spun-out of the universities involved in the national programme, have secured considerable funding from the UK and overseas. This includes several relating to quantum computing, which have attracted tens of millions in venture capital.
Such rapidly growing companies are evidence of how this emerging sector will yield significant societal and economic benefits through advances in cryogenics, superconductors, software and, ultimately, quantum computing.
The government’s recent announcement of a £153m investment boost to quantum technology innovation, backed by more than £200m in private sector investment, adds to the previous funding for research and skills development.
This will help sustain Britain’s early lead: 26 universities, 138 academics and more than 100 businesses are involved in the plan. It’s a classic case of the triple-helix of universities, government and the private sector complementing each other.
Universities and industry are increasingly comfortable with working together to exploit the fruits of research for public benefit. Even as Terry Rudolph, one of PsiQ’s co-founders, works in California, he maintains his academic position at Imperial College London. His colleague Murray Shanahan, similarly maintained his academic post when an applied research opportunity arose at artificial intelligence company DeepMind.
They’re not alone: across many sectors, such as quantum and artificial intelligence, universities are building stronger collaborations with public and private partners.
It is one reason why, when DeepMind and the image recognition start-up Magic Pony were acquired by Google parent Alphabet and Twitter, they kept their British bases. Both wanted to stay connected to London and the UK south-east’s thriving tech sectors.
Of course the phenomenon is not unique to this region: similar UK clusters of excellence that help retain successes close to their roots can be found, be it the flight search company Skyscanner and digital sector in Edinburgh, the photonics industry based around Glasgow, or the materials and manufacturing in Manchester and Sheffield.
As with AI, the UK’s academic excellence in quantum technology is catalysing a global start-up ecosystem. That’s the point. Scientists who move between countries have a higher impact than those who stick to one. Ideas, talent and investment flow in multiple directions — and this should be celebrated.
If governments, universities and the private sector get better at collaborating, the UK can drive the quantum computing revolution. If China, the US and Germany catch up, the UK will still play a pivotal role — and the race for commercially viable quantum computing will accelerate. It’s not a zero-sum game.
We should welcome, not fear, competition, as well as being open to collaboration. From lunar exploration to cancer research, it’s how the best science and innovation comes to life.
The writer is provost and professor of experimental physics at Imperial College London
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