The Global Quantum Race is On


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Huge investments are being made in quantum technology around the world. Denmark is among the nations that have joined the global race, where the winners will be those who master the peculiar science of quantum mechanics while successfully making a business out of it.

From a quiet existence in physicists’ laboratories, hidden away as basic research and experiments, over just a few short years quantum mechanics has become the subject of much attention from other quarters. Quantum mechanics is now being courted by many industries from all over the world.

Companies and nations are investing heavily in the field. The goal is to be among the first to exploit new breakthroughs in quantum mechanics for commercial purposes, i.e. to do ‘big business’ by developing new technology based on quantum mechanics: sensors, computers, and encryption—to name just a few of the quantum-based technologies in the pipeline.

Microsoft is one of the companies ramping up its investment in quantum technology research and development. The company has done research into quantum technology for over 10 years, but has turned up the heat in recent years. According to the New York Times, Microsoft is investing a sizeable amount. Regarding these investments in quantum technology, Charlotte Mark, CEO of Microsoft Development Centre Copenhagen, says:

“We’re at the stage now where we have gone from basic research, to being able to see the potential for developing a quantum computer and associated programming languages. With basic research, you don’t necessarily know whether you will be able to get a product out of it. We now believe we can.”

Google, Intel, IBM, and Toshiba are also among the companies ramping up their investments in the development of quantum technology. Several countries are committing government funding, with some focusing on specific initiatives, including Canada, the UK, Germany, USA, and China.

High-profile EU research

In April 2016, the European Commission announced that quantum technology will become the EU’s third ‘flagship’, or high-profile research and development investment focus (the other two are the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project Flagship). The Commission is proposing that the EU invest 1 billion euros in quantum technology. The steering committee managing the new flagship, to commence in 2019, describes the rising interest in quantum technology as a ‘global race’.

The current wave is being called the second quantum revolution. The first revolution was when quantum mechanics was exploited in ground-breaking technologies such as the laser and transistor. In this second quantum revolution, it has now become possible to design new quantum systems at the particle level and thereby exploit the basic principles of quantum mechanics in new technologies. But this time, the EU must do better at doing business based on the quantum mechanics that was actually conceived in Europe around 100 years ago by world-famous physicists like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Karl Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and many others.

Must be commercially exploited

“The second quantum revolution will create new commercial opportunities that address global challenges, give us strategic opportunities to implement security systems and lay the foundation for future applications that we cannot even imagine now. Europe has missed the chance to capitalize on major technological advances in the past. This could easily happen again if we don’t take action now,” writes the EU flagship steering committee in its ‘Quantum Technologies Flagship Intermediate Report’.

Cathal Mahon shares this belief. He is acting Director of the Danish Qubiz - Quantum Innovation Centre, established in 2016 based on an investment of DKK 80 million from Innovation Fund Denmark. The aim of Qubiz is to build bridges between research and commercialization.

DTU is a partner in the centre with the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University. And Professor Ulrik Lund Andersen, DTU Physics, is one of the centre’s three scientific directors. He received over DKK 60 million (EUR 8 million) in spring 2017 to establish a basic research centre for quantum technology at DTU.

“It was in Europe that quantum physics (the same as quantum mechanics, ed.) began, but it was primarily USA that reaped the benefits from a commercial perspective. USA was simply better at doing business based on quantum technology. We are currently seeing a new wave in the field of quantum technology, which will affect our society and our economy. It’s extremely important that Denmark is at the forefront this time,” says Cathal Mahon.

Major Danish opportunities

The desire for Denmark to succeed in doing business based on quantum mechanics research was what drove Innovation Fund Denmark to invest in Qubiz,” says Peter Høngaard Andersen, Director of the fund:

“We’re investing a lot of public funds in research, and if we don’t make sure to get this research further up the value chain, it’s not going to benefit Denmark enough. This will mean that we ship the benefits directly out to other countries.” He elaborates:

“Our aim with Qubiz is to maintain our current strong Danish research within quantum technology and to establish strong collaboration with a number of industries. We have been highly successful at this. The research has already produced three spin-outs, and a number of companies are considering whether to place their quantum technology R&D activities here in Denmark.”

Although Denmark is a small country with less resources than in some other nations, we still have a role to play in the current quantum race, Cathal Mahon believes:

“Denmark is particularly strong on theory and provides important basic research contributions in the field of quantum physics. We are relatively strong in this area compared to many other countries. This is not to say we are not also good in the other areas. Now we simply need to demonstrate that we can take world-class research and apply it in a commercial context,” says Cathal Mahon.

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