UK is ready to take a quantum leap on technology

The UK’s quantum technologies programme has enabled a national centre of excellence and it must now push on to deliver societal and commercial benefits.

Quantum technologies don’t get quite the same press as artificial intelligence (AI). AI is further ahead in terms of adoption and commercial use and perhaps more understandable to your average person.

Quantum physics feels a little more esoteric. I’d say the potential is no less dramatic, however, and we are now starting to see those real-world applications.

Quantum technologies will be the backbone of new sensing and imaging techniques and communications systems. I also expect new quantum computing power will speed up drug discovery and the diagnosis of health conditions and solve major challenges across many sectors.

I believe the UK is in a very strong position to benefit and now is the time to forge ahead.

UK is leading the way in quantum research

We set up the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme 10 years ago. It brought together the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with:

  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council
  • Innovate UK
  • Ministry of Defence
  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
  • National Cyber Security Centre
  • National Physical Laboratory
  • Government Communications Headquarters

It was a pioneering programme at the time and many other countries have copied the model.

We are now a centre of excellence in the UK. The hubs we set up have led the way in areas such as sensing and timing, imaging, computing and communications. We are a magnet for talent and skills.

We have the highest number of quantum technology startups in Europe and have some real products going into use across health and infrastructure.

Businesses are starting to adopt quantum technologies

We run a quantum showcase in November each year. Ten years ago, it was four academic groups talking about fundamentals of physics and molecules. Last year, I saw 70 or 80 stands and 70 of them were small or medium-sized businesses talking about what they were doing in different sectors of the economy.

Take Cerca Magnetics, which is using novel quantum sensing to be able to image the brain in new ways. You match something like that with AI and you can interrogate the data and build towards better clinical outcomes.

Other areas we are seeing new businesses using quantum technologies include in detecting leaks, in predicting the life of lithium batteries and as alternatives to GPS location services.

Now is the time to attract investors

So, we have reached a strong point. The government’s new 10-year national quantum strategy and its doubling of investment to £2.5 billion is recognition of that.

Now is the time to kick on. We need to attract long-term investment into the small businesses and startups we see working in quantum technologies.

I’m a firm believer that nothing happens without people. We need to invest in motivated and intelligent people who are working at that interface between academic research and entrepreneurship.

We are committed to supporting new PhDs in quantum technologies. We’re not talking about people in ivory towers only doing academic research. We’ll be supporting mission-led entrepreneurial research at the cutting edge of innovation.

These roles will be spread around the country, so they contribute to developing skills in the regions, building local economies and attracting international talent.

Quantum hubs will get fresh impetus

We’ll be looking to refresh the quantum technologies hubs with some new investment.

These hubs are huge collaborative exercises that are geographically dispersed and have many partners in them.

They are undertaking cutting-edge research, and that research is being pulled into products and technologies and is supporting local supply chains.

We’ll be giving them fresh impetus so they are responding to the challenges as we see them today.

I’m also looking forward to seeing the completed National Quantum Computing Centre, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, which should happen in 2024.

It will be a world-leading facility that will help the journey towards computers that can solve the sort of problems that are way beyond the computers of today.

Alongside this, we also want to see some funding for collaborative research and development across all areas of quantum to help accelerate new products into commercialisation.

Investors need to see certainty before they commit

To kick on, we must attract the venture capitalists over the next 10 years of the quantum technologies programme.

They need to see certainty around policy when they are making investments that carry a level of risk.

The new government strategy and the £2.5 billion investment send a strong signal.

We have a great relationship with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). They sit on the National Quantum Technologies Programme Board, which I chair, and they have set up the office for quantum to provide a vital policy umbrella and connection across the whole of government.

DSIT’s five quantum missions launched in November will galvanise research and business communities and create value for the UK.

I sense there’s strong political backing across all the parties for quantum and the other strategic technologies that are so important for our long-term security and prosperity.

Working together will get us to where we want to be

I take inspiration from the quantum physicist Sir Peter Knight, who was key in setting up the national quantum programme and has been central to delivering it over the last 10 years.

There’s nothing he doesn’t know about quantum. He has been working in the field for almost 60 years and his excitement and enthusiasm is undimmed.

I think he would say that this programme is about all parties leaving their ego at the door and coming together to create something that they couldn’t create on their own.

That’s what the national programme has become. No single entity could have created what we have now and this working together in partnership is central to making quantum technologies benefit the UK in the future.

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

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