Following on the publication of A Quantum Revolution: Report on Global Policies for Quantum Technology, CIFAR convened an international, virtual roundtable on October 18, 2021 that brought together policymakers and quantum research administrators from 7 countries across the globe, as well as the European Union. Through facilitated discussions, roundtable participants shared the perspectives and experiences of their respective jurisdictions, including different policy measures taken to support quantum research and nurture a quantum industrial ecosystem, gaps in current systems or policy levers, measures of success and processes that can encourage best practices, and how countries are engaging their citizens and preparing for the societal impact of quantum technologies. This brief highlights and synthesizes some of the key insights from the conversation.
Coordinating quantum R&D initiatives in a national strategy
Establishing a national quantum strategy requires fostering collaboration across and balancing the interests of a large number of stakeholders, including different central/federal government agencies, regional governments, sectors (e.g., academia and industry), and researchers across universities and existing research centres — players that may be more used to operating in different silos. A first step in building trust and encouraging cooperation may involve convening all stakeholders to identify each of their strengths; gaps that need to be filled; steps in the technological supply chain that can be done in-country and those that cannot; and, where a national strategy can add value. Finding shared goals may help get buy-in.
Funding can be a powerful tool for corralling stakeholders to collaborate, particularly if there is a deliberate injection of new money so that stakeholders see that existing funding is not being lost or simply replaced.
It may also be helpful to enlist the help of some key thinkers in the field, whom the community is more likely to listen to, in engaging the broader community and spearheading some projects even before the roadmap of a potential strategy is rolled out.
Distance matters – it may be easier to foster trust and collaboration in local or regional ecosystems. Capitalizing on existing clusters or networks can help build broader national or international ones.
Supporting a quantum industrial ecosystem
Compared to some other frontier areas of innovation, there are major investments by both the private and public sectors in quantum technology. Bringing together diverse stakeholders from academia, industry (including suppliers, software and hardware developers, and end users), and government agencies in some form of consortium or forum can allow them to learn from and build on what each other is doing.
Some smaller, local companies may worry about being out-competed by large multinational corporations, though the former may also see benefits (e.g., increased market access) in collaborating with the latter. Conversations around enabling technologies, standards, metrics, and patent policies could help engage companies of all sizes. The stakeholder forum can also help showcase smaller firms to give them more visibility. At the same time, it is worth noting that, within the big technology companies, quantum is often led by smaller “startup” teams, so the consortium can also help give voice to these teams.
A stakeholder consortium can also act as a “voice of reason”, putting out credible information and toning down potential hype about the state and promises of quantum technology.
There are strong national security and economic implications for quantum technology, creating a tension with the general ethos of open scientific research that should not be ignored (e.g., governments may need to exercise a smart use of export controls)
Industry leaders need to be as clear as possible about potential use cases for quantum technology (beyond just encryption breaking), and advancing these goals requires investment in not just quantum hardware but also in algorithms. To accelerate progress towards certain types of problems or applications, governments could help by putting out concrete challenges to provide direction for industry.
It is an ongoing challenge to improve the diversity of the quantum workforce in terms of demographic dimensions, such as gender, but also in terms of specialization / disciplinarity (i.e., the industry will require not just physicists but people from many other fields). Governments and industry need to start building the pipeline by partnering with educators and other organizations so that young students, from as early as secondary schools, from all demographics and with different interests, see themselves in this industry. It may still be possible for the quantum industry to avoid repeating the history of the broader information technology industry, where an initially higher involvement from diverse populations (especially women) were eventually squeezed out by a “geeky” culture.
Measuring the impact of government investments
National quantum strategies are often sold as ways to move technology out of the lab to benefit people’s lives, so governments and taxpayers will very much judge the success of strategies in terms of the number of jobs created or the economic value generated. Other key indicators may include the number of startups launched, the amount of industry investment drawn in relative to government investment, venture capital activity, and patents filed.
However, in addition to technology-focused funding, it is important that governments do not starve the academic pipeline — “this year’s science is next year’s technology”. While governments understandably want to increase the commercialization of their universities’ research output, over-focusing on one aspect could harm the other. Important metrics in this area include the number of postgraduate students and apprentices trained, as well as measures for scientific vibrancy, such as the output of quantum-related research publications and their citation impact.
At this stage of the field’s development, many quantum startup founders are academics who retain ties to their home institutions, so it is too early to tell what is the impact of people moving among academia, industry, and government labs. Notably, many industry labs are also great research institutions.
For national strategies focused on multiple technology areas, it is important for governments to emphasize the distinction between quantum computing and quantum technology more broadly, which includes other areas such as quantum communication, quantum sensing, etc., that may have more immediate applications.
As quantum technology and its applications develop, it may also be valuable to measure how quantum is penetrating into other fields.
Engaging citizens on the ethical and social implications of quantum technology
Because quantum technology is still at a relatively early stage of development, there are opportunities for the kind of broad conversations about its societal implications that were missed with other technologies like artificial intelligence.
Concrete actions in this area could include funding research on key ethical and social issues around quantum technology (e.g., value-based design, science communication, and legal issues such as risks, privacy, and the need for guidelines), develop impact assessment tools with industry, and conduct early and frequent public consultations.
Public consultations and debates do not necessarily provide researchers or regulators with the final answers on ethical and societal questions, but can point to topics of particular public concern.
Put the societal conversation at the beginning, rather than the end, of discussions about the technology. With the rising generation of early career researchers, these conversations are becoming a more common part of the field’s ethos. A number of international organizations, such as the World Economic Forum, are also showing growing interest in these conversations, and different countries and stakeholders can participate in some of these international efforts that are already under way.
If researchers and developers of quantum technology claim that the technology will “revolutionize” certain application areas (say, cybersecurity), they will need to engage in the ethical and societal debate in that area, and not simply say that they are not involved because quantum is only an enabling technology.
Roundtable participants and observers
Liam Blackwell, Director for Quantum Technologies, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), United Kingdom
Mark Daley, Vice President, Research, CIFAR (facilitator)
Anke Davis, Joint Head for Quantum Technologies, EPSRC, United Kingdom
Gustav Kalbe, Head of High Performance Computing and Quantum Technology Unit and Deputy Director of Directorate C, Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, European Commission
Hajime Kato, Cabinet Office, Japan
Peter Knight, Senior Research Investigator, Imperial College London; Chair of the Strategic Advisory Board, National Quantum Technology Programme, United Kingdom
Brianna Knowles, Senior Policy Officer, Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia
Marie-Hélène Légaré, Director General, Science Policy, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)
Kendal Makgamathe, External Stakeholder Relations, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Esha Matthew, Foreign Affairs Officer, United States Department of State
Celia Merzbacher, Executive Director, Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), United States
Yasunobu Nakamura, Professor, University of Tokyo; Director, RIKEN Center for Quantum Computing; Project Leader, Q-LEAP Flagship project on Superconducting Quantum Computing, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Japan
Gary Slater, Professor, University of Ottawa; Research in Residence, Office of the Chief Science Advisor, Canada
Charles Tahan, Director, National Quantum Coordination Office (NQCO), and Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), United States
Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of the Witwatersrand; former Chair of the National Working Group on Quantum Computing and Quantum Technology, Department of Science and Innovation, South Africa
Joseph Westwood, Senior Portfolio Manager for Quantum Technologies, EPSRC, United Kingdom
Shinichi Yorozu, Deputy Director, RIKEN Center for Quantum Computing, Japan
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.