Preparing for the quantum age

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Electro Optics turns 50 in 2018. To mark the occasion, experts across industry and academia review the current state of the photonics industry and highlight what needs to happen for the field to prosper over the next five decades. 

Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO and co-founder of M Squared Lasers, highlights the importance of taking a strategic response to the changing face of industry

When asked about the future of technology and computing, quantum is front-of-mind for those in the know.

What’s little known by many outside this group of people working closely in the quantum technology space, is that at the heart of the quantum revolution is the lesser-known photonics industry.

Lasers and photonics tools have always been used in computers, but as they have increased in accuracy and capability, we have started to see much smaller-scale, quantum devices being developed. We can now use lasers to cool down atoms, and turn lattices of ‘entangled’ atoms into semiconductors with extraordinary processing powers, far removed from those of conventional computers. These come with a whole new set of engineering challenges.

Lasers have long been used in computers, and many other technological devices we rely on today. The next revolution will see the realisation of increased accuracy, capability and speed. Conventional information processing is based on storing and processing data as bits, units of information that have two possible states, 0 and 1. Quantum computation similarly uses units of information that can be 0 or 1, but also a quantum-mechanical superposition of both at the same time, known as qubits. This will scale computing power exponentially.

Early stage feasibility has been demonstrated that, once truly scalable, these computers will transform our ability to solve problems that cannot be done with classical computers.

As Google, Microsoft and IBM are close to creating quantum computers, very soon, digital industries will not be looking back and the transformative effects will be seen across many sectors, from financial services to medicine. But as the technology industry rapidly becomes more specialised and sophisticated, it’s less and less likely that businesses can find the skilled work they need unless there is a strategic response to the changing face of industry.

Take my business – we need photonics specialists, and the vast majority of people walking through the door have PhDs in photonics or quantum physics. It’s only through close ties with industry that universities will be able to produce the next generation of specialists.

Instead of teaching students code that hasn’t been used in Silicon Valley for years, universities need to work with universities to identify the cutting edge of research, and to make sure they are providing students with the correct skills to reach this point.

It’s not just upskilling the next generation and plugging the skills that collaboration between industry and academia will stimulate, but also the growth of the tech sector and sparking innovations that are society-changing.

And the UK government does recognise the importance of this. Over the five years to 2020, the government has committed to investing £270m in four quantum technology hubs. Incorporating Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex Universities, the aim is to further quantum research to commercialise it for UK businesses to harness.

The UK has always competed globally in science, but bridging the gap to industry and boosting the UK’s intellectual property and exports requires a joined-up strategy. The UK National Quantum Technology programme is a step in the right direction for the UK – but the key to keeping the UK and Europe on the map is to continue the investments into R&D.

With quantum science expected to become a £100 billion industry, it’s vital that the UK acts now in order to remain competitive. As we start to realise the potential of quantum technologies in solving global problems – from cybersecurity to climate change – the world’s biggest businesses are making heavy investments in photonics and quantum, and the talent and expertise creating these innovations.

One trait of the US tech sector is the proximity of technology hubs to world-class universities. MIT and Harvard, Stanford and CalTech; both Boston and San Francisco have universities with top tech specialisms on their doorsteps – and that’s no coincidence.

The UK needs a cohesive industrial strategy with the collaboration of universities and tech companies at its core in order to remain competitive in the quantum sphere. The collaboration of researchers and industry in this sphere will lead to huge leaps forward in both research and commercial applications.

The consequences of businesses and governments being unprepared for the quantum age are vast. The UK government needs to treat education and industry as one in order to achieve the growth and innovations that will keep the UK on the world stage when it comes to quantum.

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