To ensure the UK’s place on the global quantum stage, we must attract and nurture talent
Quantum computing is coming (in fact, to one degree or another, it’s already here), and it has the potential to revolutionise everything from healthcare, to cybersecurity, and machine learning in its most formative stage. With the practically limitless processing power of quantum computers, we could have the ability to tackle problems which at the moment are too complex for traditional computers to solve. The UK has the opportunity to be at the forefront of this coming revolution, but our position as quantum pioneers is far from secure. We need to industrialise and do it fast.
The government’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), which in 2013 committed £270m to commercialising academic advancements, was a promising statement of intent. Since then, however, China has invested hundreds of millions into quantum research and the US has made $1.2b available in funding. The UK government, by comparison, committed an additional £94m to the NQTP this summer.
While a bigger cheque would always be welcome, we must recognise that government spending will never be able to match that of the world’s two biggest economies. Instead, if we are to remain a leader in quantum technologies, we must foster a special culture of collaboration.
In some respects, that culture already exists. The NQTP has so far done an excellent job of bringing domestic universities and private industry together, the most recent example being M Squared’s own partnership with the University of Strathclyde. The £4.6m we secured to fund our partnership will help turn Glasgow from a quantum outpost into a leading UK quantum hub.
Unfortunately, when it comes to establishing the UK as an international centre for collaboration, the next government will have its work cut out. Quantum research is truly cutting edge, and talent is in perpetual short supply. Significant investment into STEM subjects – at every level of education – will go some way to addressing this shortage, but we also need to attract talent from around the globe. Although our world-class universities remain a powerful draw, the reputational damage done by years of political drift needs to be addressed – and swiftly. The UK must be seen as a collaborative, stimulating place to do cutting-edge research.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that quantum computing is going to have on our world. Artificial intelligence, climate modelling, drug design, financial services, 3D mapping – all will be transformed by quantum technologies. We are not there yet – to date, we have produced a super-accurate quantum clock and a self-contained quantum navigation unit – but we are not so far off.
The UK needs to take its cues from these early quantum devices. We need to plot a course and establish a timeframe for cementing our status as a global quantum nation. There are several things we know that the future government must do: invest in education; continue to support partnerships between universities and industry; and reaffirm the UK’s status as an attractive and welcoming destination for talent, but above all help the emerging UK quantum industry to scale.
If, as a nation, we do these things, and in the process engender a strong culture of collaboration, we are sure that, just as we led the Industrial Revolution, we will be among the leaders of our quantum future.
Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO & Founder of M Squared (m2lasers.com).
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