Is Quantum the New Space Race?

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colorful visualization of quantum computing with simulated wave lengths

According to public records, over 25 different governments are committed to investing more than $25 billion in national programs focused on quantum computing, quantum communications and quantum security. While not at “space race” levels – the US reportedly invested over $170 billion in space exploration between 1958 and 1991 – these are significant amounts, and they are just the beginning.

“We will have to spend gigantic sums,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel of state-funded investments in quantum computing and other frontier technologies. French President Emmanuel Macron said that France has a chance to be “the first state to acquire a complete prototype of [a] quantum computer.” In the US, Michael Kratsios, the White House CTO said that “… [the] Administration is making an unprecedented investment to strengthen American leadership in AI and quantum and to ensure the nation benefits from these emerging technologies.” Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the nation to do whatever it takes to commercialize quantum technology to “ensure the safety of industrial and supply chains and enhance China’s ability of responding to international risks and challenges with science and technology.”

It’s a race – for the sake of security

Why the rush? Countries large and small seem to realize the transformative potential of quantum technologies. If quantum computers can one day break cybersecurity encryption, expedite the discovery of new materials, optimize supply chain routes, and improve weather prediction, then countries that have mastered quantum will have a substantial technological edge over those that haven’t.

The concept of national programs to invest in strategic technologies is not new. In the past, we’ve seen coordinated government investments in AI and machine learning, cellular technologies, and more. But there seems to be a nearly universal consensus that quantum technologies represent such a strategic opportunity.

The investments are not just in building quantum computers, but they are also in people. “The workforce was the main success factor that we looked at and the biggest gap,” says Andre  Konig, a quantum investor and consultant who recently completed a gap analysis for the US Department of Defense. While software platforms for making quantum software more accessible to ordinary engineers are being developed, Ph.D.-level scientists are most often required today. Just like AI and machine learning experts are in high demand, an acute shortage of quantum experts is on the horizon.

Where investments are slotted

Government investments fall into two broad categories. The first is the creation of collaborative hubs in which industry and academic partners can collaborate on the research and development of new quantum technologies. For instance, as part of the UK national quantum strategy, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) created a hub for quantum computing and simulation with the participation of 17 universities and a number of industry partners. The second category is direct support for the commercialization of innovative technologies.

The money from governments is just part of the picture. Billions of dollars are also invested from private sources: venture capital firms, public markets and internal corporate funds. For instance, as part of spinning out its quantum computing activities, Honeywell committed another $300M to develop its quantum solutions. IonQ, another hardware provider raised about $650M through a SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation) merger. 

The investments from governments and corporations are sometimes codependent. As an example, In March 2021, the Government of Canada announced a $40M investment into D-Wave Systems. The company, in turn, committed to creating and maintaining 200 jobs. Such a number of new jobs can serve as a seed for turning an area into a hub of quantum computing in support of strategic government priorities.

If you believe that “money talks,” quantum is going mainstream. Corporations look at quantum as a dramatic growth opportunity, and governments believe that their countries can’t be left behind in this race. 

world map of countries investing in quantum computing
A map showing public investments in quantum technology by country, based on public sources. The area of each bubble corresponds to the size of the investment.

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