A quantum future? Positioning the UK in the emergence of quantum technologies

1 February 2024


A quantum future? Positioning the UK in the emergence of quantum technologies

Reported by Valérie Nowak, Policy Intern, Centre for Science and Policy

The fourth meeting of the Dowling Policy Fellowship took place in January 2024 at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and focused on how quantum technologies are shaped by UK research policies. This is a rapidly emerging area as the UK Government has set an ambitious National Quantum Strategy with a goal of achieving a quantum-enabled economy by 2035. To this end, £2.5 billion has been earmarked for the development of quantum technologies within the UK over ten years from 2024.

“Quantum technologies are the biggest economic promise”

Tom Newby, Head of the Office for Quantum Technologies at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and Chander Velu, Professor of Innovation and Economics in the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge discussed the economic opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Mr Newby emphasised that “Quantum technologies are the biggest economic promise”. As part of the UK Government’s focus on creating a quantum-enabled economy it is not simply funding research, but establishing missions to transform quantum in different sectors, such as healthcare. However, as Mr Newby explained, determining the optimal time for the UK Government to step back from investing public money in quantum is a challenging task.

As Professor Velu explained, the underlying business cases for quantum technologies have yet to be identified: “So far, there is experimenting, but a strategic approach in companies is missing.” Potential uses, such as the potential for quantum-based communication systems, are running into difficulties. Companies are hesitant to invest in quantum technologies as there are uncertainties about how to monetise such advances. As Professor Velu pointed out, there are major outstanding questions for policy makers and investors—“Who benefits from this technology, who are potential losers and how can we prevent risks?”

“Quantum computers will be as significant as inventing computers”

According to Dr Steve Brierley, Founder of Riverlane, overcoming ‘quantum noise’, unwanted disturbances that affect quantum systems and lead to errors in quantum computation, is the current challenge in quantum computing. Quantum noise occurs because atoms are quite fragile and quantum computers are needed to model the world of atoms and to solve equations that are beyond the capacity of standard computers. The impact of quantum computers could be seismic, as Dr Brierley suggested, "Quantum computers will be as important as the invention of the computer."

From quantum technology to quantum biology

Dr Luca Sapienza, Associate Professor in Quantum Engineering, University of Cambridge explained that quantum technology can be used to encode information through single photons emitted at the speed of light and his own work focuses on controlling light down to single photons. Interestingly, it was noted that quantum effects can also be observed in biological systems: "There is growing evidence that photosynthetic processes could be based on quantum effects." For example, purple algae at a depth of 5000 meters in the ocean (equivalent to about half the cruising altitude of a commercial jet) absorb single photons of sunlight and convert them into energy with high efficiency. By understanding these processes, it could be possible to reverse-engineer them and develop more efficient energy transitions.

Dr Helena Knowles, Assistant Professor and Royal Society Research Fellow at the Department of Physics, University of Cambridge, explained that, until now, quantum technologies have required extreme environments, such as a temperature of minus 273 degrees Celsius, to operate: this is obviously very different from temperatures in a living environment. By introducing tiny diamonds into cells, her research team aims to monitor quantum effects in individual living cells. The aim is to observe the nanoscale interactions in the cell that lead to cancer. Through this technology, it could be possible to develop diagnostic tools for cancer at an exceedingly early stage, comparable to a nanoscale MRI machine. Dr Knowles explained that the UK Quantum Strategy prioritises the transfer of quantum technology to the health sector, the Strategy has impacted the direction of research.

Image from Anton Maksimov on Unsplash.

Valérie Nowak

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge