Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public, goes the famous line by the US editor Henry Louis Mencken. It’s actually a paraphrase, but the meaning is clear: to make money, it is safe to assume that nobody knows anything.
By rights, then, quantum physics should be extremely profitable. The subject is often used as shorthand for knowledge that is reserved for a small intellectual elite, with everyone else left scratching their heads. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed last month, the quantum world is so weird that to mount even a half-decent explanation of its basic principles can bring praise and plaudits.
Can this widespread ignorance — the puzzlement at how cats can be both alive and dead, or how particles can exist in two places at once — be capitalized on? The European Commission believes that it can. Next week, it will release a plan for a continent-wide drive to turn the mysteries of quantum physics into hard cash.
This plan, called the European Quantum Manifesto, will be officially released in the Dutch town of Delft, where the commission hopes a revolution will be born. Eyeing China, Australia, Canada and other countries that have invested huge sums of money in quantum technology, Europe does not want to miss out. With €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) of funding, scientists and businesses will be expected to translate quantum research into quantum products to create “a more sustainable, more productive, more entrepreneurial and more secure European Union”.
These are great expectations. Europe is no doubt encouraged by the various quantum technologies that have matured in recent years. Quantum sensors, for example, can achieve high sensitivity and resolution through quantum superposition or entanglement, outperforming classical sensors in various imaging applications. Strategic use of funds could indeed take quantum sensors to market in a few years.
But for most quantum technologies, the path to commercialization is much longer and more contrived. The arguable peak of quantum technologies — the construction of a universal quantum computer — is decades, and billions of euros of targeted investment, away. But it promises perhaps the greatest gains: substantially greater power for key computations, such as simulations of chemical reactions and — maybe — machine learning.
“This is one project that should not have to be in several places at once.”
Revolutions happen through popular uprising and not through carefully directed government investment. At some point, investors, entrepreneurs and academics are supposed to conspire on this revolution without directives from above. Hence the European Quantum Manifesto seeks to mobilize a broad base of quantum technologists. Specifically, it plans an environment in which small, high-potential quantum-tech businesses can thrive.
Given that a large majority of start-up firms fail, how is this plan supposed to work in the risky and unproven quantum-technology business? Predicting the likely outcome of the European Commission’s plan is as hard as determining whether Schrödinger’s cat is dead or alive without opening its box.
Can we peek inside the box to get some insights on how this commercial future might unfold? Nature has designed an experiment to try. The project (see go.nature.com/53iiw6) trained seven young quantum physicists to conceive and evaluate business ideas in quantum technologies. The project culminated in a presentation day last week at Nature’s London office, where the physicists’ ideas were scrutinized by a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and leaders in quantum technologies.
A PhD student from University College London invented a quantum-inspired accelerometer with a relatively safe and clear route to market. And two postdocs from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have the ambition to outshine Google and IBM and build a universal quantum computer based on silicon qubits.
Two of the five ideas that were presented — an invention that permits quantum computers to be linked, and a start-up that will design quantum machine-learning algorithms — set out to depend on the few companies and groups who have already invested huge sums of money to try to build quantum-computing hardware. Both ideas are betting on being able to sell their products to only a few customers. It sounds like a risky strategy, but it might indicate a way to create and sustain the necessary critical mass of start-ups that the European Quantum Manifesto is aiming for. Focusing investment on one high-risk, high-gain goal — such as a universal quantum computer — could create a string of start-ups that each specialize in one integral component or aspect.
Still, it is unlikely that Europe’s quantum-technology initiative will take this route. Given the many scientific goals in the manifesto, the authors seem to hope that the plan will have its own quantum properties and be able to address all the goals simultaneously. That looks like a mistake. It would be a missed opportunity if the quantum world that the commission hopes to create is hamstrung by the small steps and endless compromise that haunt other European projects. The initiative needs a clear and a bold goal. This is one project that should not have to be in several places at once.
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