Europe shows first cards in €1-billion quantum bet

One of the most ambitious EU ‘Flagship’ schemes yet has picked 20 projects, aiming to turn weird physics into useful products.

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A view of the stage at the Quantum Flagship Event in Vienna, 28 October 2018

The unveiling of the quantum flagship's first grants on 29 October, in Vienna, Austria.Credit: Christopher Dunker/BKA

Plans to build two working quantum computers are among the first winners to be announced in a €1-billion (US$1.1 billion) funding initiative of the European Commission.

The Quantum Flagship was first announced in 2016, and on 29 October, the commission announced the first batch of fund recipients. The 20 international consortia, each of which includes public research institutions as well as industry, will receive a total of €132 million over 3 years for technology-demonstration projects.

The efforts add to a global rush to turn early-stage laboratory experiments into applications such as practical quantum computers, which promise to do certain tasks — for example, predicting chemical reactions exponentially faster than classical computers do. Most recently, in August, Germany's federal government quietly announced a quantum initiative worth €650 million.

The EU initiative is the European Commission’s third flagship scheme, after the Human Brain and Graphene flagships, which started in 2013. Its announcement in 2016 was a response to a ‘Quantum Manifesto’, written by a group of experts.

More details and a public call for proposals came out in 2017. The quantum flagship comprises five thematic areas: quantum computers; quantum simulations; quantum sensing and metrology; quantum communications; and basic quantum science. These follow in large part the manifesto’s suggestions.

Source: Quantum Flagship

Quantum computers

The quantum-computer grants went to consortia pursuing two of the leading approaches for the technology: superconducting circuits and individual ions electromagnetically trapped in a vacuum.

Thomas Monz, a physicist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria who is co-leading the ion-trap project, says that the goal is to make a quantum computer using a reproducible — if not yet mass-producible — method that is reliable enough to work without the constant intervention of a team of experts.

“So far, everything we’ve been doing was proof of principle. It was completely fine if it worked for only a day or an hour,” says Monz. The quantum machine they plan to build will be about as large as two family refrigerators — substantially smaller than the current, room-sized equipment, he says.

In the quantum-communications arena, one grant went to the Quantum Internet Alliance, a consortium of 12 institutions and companies from around Europe to develop a continent-wide ‘quantum-teleportation’ network.

Immanuel Bloch, a physicist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, is part of a consortium that includes three separate projects — in Paris, Innsbruck and Munich — to advance quantum simulations, each on a different type of system. Such machines use one quantum system to reproduce the behaviour of another.

They are similar to quantum computers, but they have less-demanding requirements — in particular, they are not as sensitive to computational error — and therefore could have practical applications on a shorter timescale. This includes a ‘quantum advantage’ — doing calculations that no classical computer can do. “We want to take these very advanced platforms and demonstrate a quantum advantage for simulating materials and quantum chemistry,” says Bloch.

Other grants announced today included a range of projects, each inevitably containing a ‘Q’ in its name, from PhoQuS to UNIQORN. Some of the proposed technologies are relatively close to market applications, including ultra-precise, portable, atomic clocks, and chip-sized devices that produce random numbers for use in secure networks.

No Moonshot

For most of the labs involved, the flagship will not make a substantial difference in terms of buying machinery or hiring researchers: although €1 billion sounds like a lot, the money is distributed over 10 years and dozens of laboratories. (The EU provides only half of the €1 billion; the remaining half has to come in matching funds from the individual member countries.)

Lieven Vandersypen, a physicist at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, says that the flagship is a missed opportunity to provide a ‘Moonshot’ on a single focused goal, such as building a large quantum computer. Instead, “only €20 million goes to computing” in this round of funding, says Vandersypen, who is leading an effort to build a quantum computer on a silicon chip, in collaboration with US semiconductor giant Intel. “I don’t see the Moon.”

But others say that the main advantage of the flagship is that it has forced groups to pool their efforts and knowledge — in particular, academia and industry. “It is a strong incentive to make sure that we collaborate on a European scale,” says Monz.

Even with large corporations moving into the field, major public funding schemes will be necessary merely to keep a pipeline of experts, says Rodney Van Meter, an engineer at Keio University in Tokyo who has worked on both classical and quantum information technology. “You need to build quantum programmes inside universities simply to train the people that Google and Intel are going to need.”

Race to quantum future

Public funders worldwide, from Canada to Japan, and major corporations are betting that quantum technologies — some of which are still of unproven usefulness — will grow into multi-billion-dollar markets. And Europe, too, wants to make sure that it gets a slice of future profits, says Tommaso Calarco, who was one of the authors of the original Quantum Manifesto and is a theoretical physicist at the Helmholtz Centre in Jülich, Germany. The “decisive stimulus” for the European Commission to select quantum physics as its third flagship project was a dramatic increase in investment in the field from US technology giants such as Google and IBM.

The United Kingdom, which started a £270-million (US$-346 million) National Quantum Technologies Programme in 2014, has been an early mover in this field. China, which has already made major investments in the field, including in a quantum-communication satellite, is rumoured to be planning a quantum-research centre in Hefei worth billions of US dollars.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Congress is considering a proposal to set aside more than $1.2 billion for quantum computing.

Germany's pledge of €650 million for quantum research — which comes on top of the EU Flagship and runs through 2022 — could mean that, by itself, the scheme will distribute more funds in Germany each year than the EU Flagship does across all of Europe — although the details are still undecided, says Bloch, who is advising the government on the programme. In particular, it is unclear yet how much of the €650 million will be new money on top of what the country already spends, Bloch says.

Europe’s previous flagships — one on graphene and one on brain simulation — have been criticized, in part because they assigned grants non-competitively. The organizers of the Quantum Flagship have been mindful of those controversies, says Calarco. “Grants are decided with open calls, evaluated by external collaborators,” he says.

Nature 563, 14-15 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07216-0

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