A strategy launched today will help the UK harness the potential of quantum technology and grow an entirely new industry worth £1bn, enabling ultra-fast, hack-resistant communications and underground sensing devices.
The strategy, developed by the Quantum Technologies Strategic Advisory Board, the body overseeing the newly established £270m UK National Quantum Technology Programme, will guide investment into the nascent field over the next 20 years to help build relations between industry and academia.
E&T talked to one of the document’s authors, Innovate UK’s Richard Murray.
E&T: People have been talking about quantum computers and quantum cryptography for some time. Why is now the right time for an organised push for quantum?
Richard Murray: There are three major reasons why the timing is right for quantum now. Firstly, we have recently seen huge advances in the underlying technology – extremely accurate lasers, micro-fabrication techniques, the development of electronics in the past ten to twenty years: all this is really enabling the quantum technologies to be mass-manufactured and realised in much more compact forms than before.
Secondly, the global academic base, but particularly researchers here in the UK, have recently started developing demonstrators that really show how these devices can be used. These can be used to test future applications and real working prototypes.
The third reason why quantum technology should be happening now is that the UK has just been given a £270 million investment from the government. That’s a significant investment that will help drive quantum technology forward. And we want to coordinate both the UK businesses and the academia to help them explore the potential of these technologies to the maximum.
People may have been talking about quantum computers and quantum cryptography for ages, but only now do we have devices which people can actually use. Before, it was more about theory. And it takes a long time to actually turn theory into usable devices.
E&T: What do you think quantum will bring to the world once it’s completely mastered?
RM: It’s difficult to foresee the true potential of quantum technologies and predict which applications will be successful. Quantum technology is completely revolutionary. It’s completely new. Nothing that exists at the moment comes even close to quantum technology. We have tried to identify possible uses, but we most likely didn’t manage to identify all of them.
E&T: When do you expect to see first applications?
RM: We expect that in about two years we will start seeing first quantum clock systems that would be small enough for commercial use and offer unprecedented levels of accuracy.
Such devices will have a huge impact on areas such as finance, where measuring or timing of high frequency trades is becoming increasingly important for the security of global markets. Quantum clock devices will also improve precise navigation, which requires a very accurate time reference.
E&T: What other breakthrough technologies do you foresee?
RM: Gravity-sensing devices are a really exciting application area. At the moment, your iPhone has in it a gravity sensor so it can tell which way up it’s being held. This sensor is rather crude. The only thing it can tell is really just where is up and down. But with quantum devices, we would be able to measure gravity much more accurately. For example, if you would hold the mobile phone up to your head, the mobile phone would be able to detect the gravitational field arising from your head.
Such devices can have enormous practical applications. They would allow us to use gravity for imaging. You would have a gravity device and from it you would actually create a map of what the gravity around you looks like.
E&T: What might be some of the intended uses for that?
RM: If you could image the gravity around you then you could start imaging density around you, the mass, the actual matter around you. Eventually, you would be able to construct maps so that it enables you to see underground. You would be able to image pipes under the ground without having to dig up the road. At the moment, there is no way how to actually detect pipes until you've dug up the road. Quantum devices would allow you to actually see through the ground, to see pipes, caves or holes or even oil deposits.
E&T: One of the areas mentioned in the strategy is 6G communications. How can communication systems benefit from quantum?
RM: Quantum will enable operating communication networks much more efficiently. The quantum clock systems, which I mentioned earlier, would allow us to move data packets around much more efficiently.
The challenge of current communications is that as data rates are getting higher and higher, the frequency at which those data packets are being sent is increasing and becoming more frequent. That means increasing demands on measuring the timing of those packets as they arrive and as they are sent.
There is no other technology that could provide the same accuracy levels and sensitivity as the quantum technology.
It’s a little bit like a bus timetable. At the moment, your bustime table is accurate to a few minutes but you can imagine that as the buses start arriving more and more frequently, your bus timetable and the time zone would have to become more and more accurate and more and more precise. To achieve that, you need to have a more accurate timing system in order to know when all the buses are arriving.
However, in order to be useful, these quantum devices would have to be small and compact. There are demonstrators in labs at the moment but they are quite big, quite expensive and quite fragile.
In the strategy, we have outlined recommendations that would help bring down the cost, the weight, size and power of these devices so that they can actually be commercial.
E&T: How can you maximise the benefits of quantum for the economy and the society?
RM: In order to be really successful, you have to align all what the technology can do with the people who will be buying and using the technology. In the case of telecommunications it’s about connecting the academics and businesses who are making the technologies with larger telecommunications companies who will eventually use them. And what we hope to do is to engage those two different groups in conversation so that they really understand what the technology needs to be and what the potential market applications could be.
E&T: How is the UK standing in terms of quantum research globally?
RM: The UK academics are world leaders in the quantum technology. The UK has very good skills and capabilities also on the industry level in elctronics and RF electronics.
Quantum technologies offer huge potential to the UK through a number of different areas. This is about a single technology potentially having an impact across a wide range of sectors and each of those sectors is quite big.
We believe quantum technology will have a significant impact on the UK economy. The core of this strategy is not that much about science as it is about wealth creation.
We believe there will be tremendous benefits to UK businesses and to UK citizens through all of these really exciting new technologies which we expect to come out of quantum technologies.