The UK and US are strengthening collaboration in quantum science and technologies (S&T). This is driven somewhat by necessity, joint national security interests, and the potential of UK quantum computing start-ups.
Quantum computing patent publications are currently dominated by big tech companies in the US, and The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). The UK is a comparatively small player, so why has the US decided to collaborate with it?
The UK is an attractive quantum S&T partner
The UK is an attractive international partner in quantum computing. Its National Quantum Technology Program has produced a flourishing ecosystem of universities, start-ups, and government agencies specializing in quantum technologies. This is being extended for the next ten years and will bring another GBP1 billion of investment with it. It has so far helped produce six world-class quantum start-ups: PsiQuantum, Cambridge Quantum Computing, Oxford Quantum Circuits, Riverlane, Universal Quantum, and Rahko.
The core quantum computing value chain is beset by slow progress, heavy capital spending, and a shortage of highly skilled quantum hardware and software engineers. The UK’s quantum ecosystem will play an important part in alleviating these problems as the technology develops.
Collaboration between the US and UK in quantum S&T is now a necessity. Compared with other technologies, few countries are investing heavily in quantum. The EU launched the Quantum Technologies Flagship initiative in 2018. However, AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US, reduces the likelihood that the US or UK will be involved.
Supply-chain issues have also brought the UK and US together. The industry faces chronic shortages of key equipment for quantum computing labs. The niche market means there are often only a handful of companies worldwide that produce the relevant equipment. For example, the specialist vacuum chambers that house qubits (or quantum bits) have two major suppliers, Oxford Instruments and Bluefors. Collaboration will reduce the chance of future supply chain bottlenecks.
The China question
China is committing at least $15 billion in quantum computing over the next five years and is focused on expanding its skills base. It currently leads in several technologies, such as quantum communications, through its National Quantum Lab at USTC Hefei.
This means that quantum computing is a national security interest. Quantum computers may be able to crack RSA codes, which secure most of the internet. In addition, quantum technologies have the potential to transform weapons development; ever-more precise atomic clocks, quantum sensors for navigation, and quantum radar are all in development.
This highlights the growing possibilities and importance of quantum technology. However, it is currently impossible to tell which ideas will come to fruition. Therefore, ensuring that there are many players with differing approaches is vital. Cambridge Quantum Computing is one such company based in the UK, which is developing a quantum random number generator for cybersecurity purposes.
Quantum S&T implications are long-term
It is important to note that quantum computing remains a nascent technology. Noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) devices will not be in common use until 2025 at the earliest, and error-free quantum computers are extremely unlikely before 2030. Therefore, the US-UK agreement focuses on harnessing the long-term implications of quantum technologies. Applications in drug discovery and manufacturing process optimization represent huge growth possibilities, and both countries stand to benefit.