Quantum needs ‘agile procurement’ by govt

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Governments must look beyond grant funding to procure cutting edge technology themselves to grow the quantum sector, according to renowned British physicist and professor Sir Peter Knight.

Professor Knight, who is the lead advisor on the UK government’s bold £2.5 billion quantum push, said a key part of the plan is the government buying quantum technologies.

“It’s all very well to run programs where you can actually put in a collaborative grant for a facility to work on a program. [But] nothing is as effective as procuring from a company – to actually buy product,” Professor Knight said at the Quantum Australia event in Sydney on Wednesday.

British physicist and professor Sir Peter Knight chairs the UK  government’s Quantum Technologies strategic advisory board

The UK government last year announced it will invest almost $5 billion in quantum technologies over the coming decade. The record spend is guided by an ambitious national strategy that recognises the technology as a top priority.

The decade prior included another almost $2 billion government investment in quantum, mostly focused on research commercialisation and industry collaboration.

“What we’ve done is we’ve spent a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money over the decade in trying to work out how we transfer the insights from a great science community into things that are going to have an economic and societal value,” Professor Knight said.

The coming decade will see new research centres to avoid “paralysis locked in from a decade ago”, infrastructure investments, bold national missions like building a fault tolerant quantum computer – some of which Professor Knight accepts are likely to fail – and new skills programs.

A new national quantum centre has been established to oversee the entire program while a new Office for Quantum has been established within government.

But the overarching focus on quantum “capability” will stay,” Professor Knight said.

“When I started to work on getting government to support this program, it was really important for us to actually demonstrate that this was a capability that was of value. You don’t need to use the quantum word – you just talk about the capability.”

For instance, Professor Knight will show policy makers the potential of things like timing resilience, a quantum alternative to the GPS navigation that the global economy now depends on but is vulnerable to disruption.

Or the way sensors can effectively unearth what is buried below the ground with quantum technology pioneered in Australia by chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley.

“These are the kinds of things where you don’t need to use the quantum word, you just talk where the capabilities may be.”

Across the road from the UK’s National Quantum Centre just south of Oxford is a new facility for testing and developing quantum hardware the government has bought.

“We can actually start to explore, when we procure stuff, what does it do? So getting ourselves under one roof, bringing the researchers in, bringing in government, bringing in industry to work out these early stages.”

Already the UK government has invested almost $100 million into these testbed facilities for quantum computing, allowing it direct access to a range of platforms from early-stage UK manufacturers.

“You can benchmark things,” Professor Knight said.

“You can see what’s the performance like for a Neutral atom platform, what’s the performance like for a silicon platform, what’s the performance like for a photonic platform.

“So we’ve purchased a number of these and we’ve kicked the tyres, we can see how in house development might help, we can actually look at some external platforms as well by comparison. We can de-risk some of the problems that might otherwise be involved through early adopters. You can let them have a play at this early stage.”

Australia’s national quantum push has not had this level of direct government involvement or funding, while the Albanese government’s procurement of a quantum platform has been shrouded in secrecy.

Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Industry and Science minister Ed Husic acknowledged a worsening capital market for quantum firms and said more support will come from the government’s wider technology investment programs.

He said quantum technologies will be genuinely transformative and Cabinet colleagues are getting the message.

“Being able to design new medicines that save people’s lives and improve the quality of people’s lives — just as one example of many things [quantum will do] — this is really important stuff,” Mr Husic said.

“And this is why I lean in so much on this and keep yammering about it at federal cabinet… But it is important that we as a nation recognize the value that, the way we can work with international partners, but importantly building up the growth of our ecosystem.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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