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Embracing quantum at an inflection point

Henry Ford famously declared, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Over a century on, and it is technologies that exploit quantum science, from advanced computing to sensing and communications, that are now set to disrupt our future.

The new National Quantum Strategy, launched by the Australian Government last week, articulates an ambition for Australia to pull off the metaphorical equivalent of creating the automobile industry.

I’m a career engineer and scientist, having spent more than two decades on research and development of quantum technologies. Ford’s declaration unhelpfully allows people like me to slide past the messy, delightfully human aspects of technological disruption.

In truth, Ford didn’t brute-force a different future into existence; that had been done in the fifty years before by the technologists who were developing steam and internal combustion engines. Ford just had great timing; he shaped the rising tide of public imagination and stepped in before there were many commercial competitors.

For better or worse – many of us are ambivalent given the changed climate we are now facing – Ford, his predecessors and contemporaries changed the world.

Professor Elanor Huntington

Right now, we stand at almost exactly that point in the wave of quantum technological disruption.

For several decades, Australia has been a globally significant powerhouse in quantum technology research, and there is a rising tide of imagination about what that might be good for. Australia has a narrow window of time in which we can step in to reap commercial benefits and shape the kind of post-quantum world in which we’d like to live.

The new National Quantum Strategy, into which CSIRO contributed significant expertise across a variety of touchpoints including representation on the National Quantum Advisory Committee by our chief scientist and the director of the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre, brings together insights from experts in research, academia, industry and government. It is a call to action. Its focus is on growth, collaboration, people, responsible innovation, and positioning Australia as a global leader in the field.

Australia is well placed to succeed, with strong underpinning quantum research credentials and a bourgeoning industry already gaining momentum. But, for the quantum technology industry to continue to grow, there is a challenging shift that needs to take place. The shift from research to impact, from concept to reality and from the vision of technologists to the imagination of us all.

Quantum science explains how the world works at the most fundamental level; think electrons, atoms and photons. Quantum physics is unquestionably hard to get your head around. It deals with things we can’t see, concepts that go against our understanding of how the world works and impacts the things we see every day.  But pragmatically the more important question is, “what is it good for?”

We have been using the quantum properties of matter for more than fifty years to create technologies that we already use every day. From the powerful computers in our mobile phones relying on semiconductor electronics, to the atomic clocks in the satellites that circle our globe and enable GPS navigation, it is all around us.

We are now at a new inflection point. Thanks to decades of work by many incredibly unique and innovative minds, we are now able to engineer – rather than simply use – quantum properties to create devices that will unlock whole new approaches to computation, sensing and secure communication. Quantum technologies can enhance national security and support defence and space through quantum-secure communications; quantum software and algorithms can accelerate drug development and new materials for the manufacturing sector; and quantum sensors can be used for water resource management.

Forecasting by CSIRO estimates that commercialising quantum technologies could result in an Australian industry worth $2.2 billion and generate 8,700 jobs by 2030.

Australia’s ability to realise this ambition, will be determined by our ability to support our quantum research ecosystem, strengthen infrastructure, source materials and develop, attract and maintain a skilled workforce. We must also raise awareness about quantum technologies and the potential for impact in our everyday lives. That means forging strong partnerships, effective communication and genuine engagement that can lead to discovery and innovation.

At CSIRO, we are proud to be playing a role in this – collaborating across the sector to raise quantum awareness, developing quantum use cases and strengthening and expanding our research portfolio in new areas such as quantum biotechnology.

It’s an exciting time for anyone involved in the quantum community as we watch our world expand rapidly. It’s also an exciting time for budding newcomers to join this growing industry.

We are – for better or worse – heading into a post-quantum world. Australia has a real, but perishable, opportunity to shape that world to be the kind of one in which we all want to live.  Please join us.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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