With AI, blockchain and other emerging tech stealing recent headlines, quantum technologies have been out of the spotlight. However, the importance and widespread applications of quantum technologies is becoming increasingly apparent. In March of this year, the UK published its first National Quantum Strategy (the ‘Strategy’) setting out a £2.5 billion commitment to developing quantum technologies in the UK over the next ten years.
What are quantum technologies?
Broadly speaking, quantum technologies are those that utilise the principles of quantum mechanics (the physics of sub-atomic particles). There are three main sub-fields of quantum technologies:
- quantum sensing and imaging;
- quantum communications; and
- quantum computing.
Each subfield has different scopes of application and commercial readiness. For example, in the field of quantum sensing and imaging, MRI scanners are a key diagnostic and research tool already in commercial use. On the other end of the spectrum, quantum computing is a rapidly emerging field and is widely anticipated to disrupt businesses once quantum computers are commercially viable. These technologies offer organisations huge potential to disrupt and innovate and as such have drawn focus from the government in the publication of the Strategy.
The Strategy is built on four key goals:
- growing UK knowledge and skills in quantum science and engineering;
- making the UK the preferred location for quantum businesses, investors and talent;
- driving the adoption and use of quantum technologies in the UK; and
- creating a regulatory framework that supports quantum innovation whilst protecting national security.
The publication of the Strategy demonstrates the government’s clear intention to put the UK at the forefront of quantum innovation, listing quantum as one of the UK’s top five priority technologies (along with AI, engineering biology, semiconductors and future telecoms).
What actions should organisations take?
The Strategy acknowledges that there are vast and far-reaching benefits to quantum technology. It has the potential to revolutionise our day to day lives in areas such as healthcare, transport and environmental monitoring. To take advantage of these benefits, organisations must prepare for the quantum technology transition whilst managing any associated risks. Actions include:
- Preparing your workforce
There currently exists a wide talent gap between business needs for quantum computing and the number of quantum professionals available; McKinsey & Company estimates that there is one qualified quantum candidate for every three quantum job openings. Goal one of the Strategy aims to address this by increasing the number of centres for doctoral training which focus on quantum technologies and by supporting global quantum talent movement to the UK through enhanced visa routes. To ensure that organisations are taking the appropriate steps to build the quantum talent they need, lessons can be learnt from the early days of AI. As such, organisations should:
- build basic fluency at all organisational levels in quantum topics;
- make continuous investments in a diverse and inclusive workforce; and
- hire managers with a variety of quantum expertise such that all quantum sub-fields are catered for.
2. Managing the quantum encryption risk
As with any new technology, there are risks associated with quantum technology. One of those most widely discussed is the risk quantum computing will pose to cyber security (as addressed in goal 4 of the Strategy). Classical computers are built on bits which are units of information that can store either a zero or a one. Most modern security systems make use of the storage limitations of bits by depending on public-key cryptography (‘PKC’). PKC hides data behind complex mathematical problems that would take classical computers millions of years to solve. Quantum computers, on the other hand, use qbits which can store zeroes and ones simultaneously. This allows quantum computers to store enormous amounts of information and to solve these complex mathematical problems in a fraction of the time – rendering PKC useless.
Whilst wide-spread commercialised quantum computing is still some way off (some experts are predicting another ten years), the risk quantum computing will pose to cyber security is very real and current. Thankfully, there are steps which are being taken by governments now to ensure a quantum-proof future. The US, for example, is creating a set of standards for quantum-proof encryption. This set of standards is made up of encryption tools, four of which were announced by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (‘NIST’) last July. This NIST standard is not due to be finalised until 2024; however, whilst the standard is still in development, NIST encourages organisations to:
- carry out an inventory of their systems for applications that use PKC;
- alert IT departments and vendors about the upcoming changes; and
- get involved in developing guidance for migrating to post-quantum cryptography via NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence project page.
Additional steps organisations can take to prepare are set out in our blog “Will you be ready when quantum beaks encryption” which sets out the background to quantum computing in more detail and provides a list of actions you can take. Further guidance for organisations can also be found in the World Economic Forum white paper ‘Transitioning to a Secure Quantum Economy’.
Goal 4 of the Strategy states that the government’s quantum regulation and standards framework is yet to be defined and as such this space will need to be closely monitored. However, the publication of the Strategy brings quantum technologies and associated challenges to the fore. This gives organisations an excellent opportunity to start their preparations for the inevitable widespread commercialisation of quantum technologies, which is a question of ‘when, not if’.