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The UK's journey to quantum readiness

The UK's journey to quantum readiness

The government’s commitment of up to £235 million to the development of quantum technologies shows the potential of the industry. But as the sector begins scale up and identifies the first potential industrial users, what stage is the UK’s quantum industry currently at?

During the quantum panel discussion at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase, held on 9 November 2018, a panel of experts explored this question.

Quantum’s second phase

According to Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO and co-founder of M Squared, the UK quantum programme is currently moving into its second phase of development.

We’ve seen some announcements that show the confidence of the UK community and government, and international recognition of the quality of the consortium that we have here in the UK. We’ve gone from analogue to digital, and quantum is really what comes next.

Mind the skills gap

Brendan Casey from Kelvin Nanotechnology believes that to take the next step, the UK has to work on the industry’s competitive advantage, not just by addressing market needs, but by preventing the quantum skills gap from widening.

We need to consider the market needs, opportunities and the end users. Not just about which skills, but also volume. We need thousands of people from a wide variety of skillsets to go from quantum ready to serious sales and market benefit for UK industry.

According to Casey, the industry is already having a positive impact on the UK jobs market. But in order to grow more, quantum needs to become a more attractive employer. He continued: "Look at how fast it’s grown and think about all the organisations behind it. There’s thousands of highly-skilled jobs from apprenticeships to post-doctorates. We now need to make sure that quantum is a visible industry that people aspire to work in, and the government can help with that."

Andrew Shields, Toshiba Research Europe’s Assistant Managing Director, agreed with Casey. He said: "It’s getting harder to recruit skilled graduates, so the government has an important role in training the quantum engineers of the future."

Artist's impression of a wave function series

An artist's impression of a wave function series.

Government’s role

According to the experts, raising quantum’s profile isn’t the only role the government can play in ensuring the UK is quantum ready. Shields believes it is government’s job to bring key players together.

All the systems developed here [at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase] are multi-disciplinary, so stakeholders, technologies and different supply chains need to be brought together. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund programme is a great mechanism to bring stakeholders together, and it’s rightly focused on demonstrators.

Piquing interest without overpromising

In the second phase of quantum development, the relationship between those developing the technology and potential industry early adopters is being carefully managed, according to Malcolm. He commented: "The pioneer projects will be the first use cases. People want to go first, but they want to build on something. It’s about working through that early adoption process."

The 4 pioneer projects are funded with £20 million from the ISCF’s quantum technologies challenge that will develop quantum-enabled prototypes within 2 years.

According to RSK’s George Tuckwell, the technology must maintain the balance between piquing industry’s interest and overpromising. He believes this can be achieved by clearly showing the benefits of the technology.

As an end user, we want to tread the tightrope between maintaining interest amongst our client base and overpromising so they lose interest. We need to demonstrate where the advantages are, even if they’re not commercially ready, by showing that quantum enables you to do things you can’t currently do. The more real we can make it look, the more pull there will be.

Tuckwell is leading RSK’s project, ‘Surveying underground before you start digging’. Funded by the ISCF, the project will use quantum technology to develop a device that can detect objects underground, helping road-working companies and potentially the rail network.