The race to quantum: taking computing to a new level in Europe By Andrus Ansip

The race to quantum: taking computing to a new level in Europe By Andrus Ansip
European Commission

Quantum theory has fundamentally changed our understanding of how light and matter behave at a microscopic scale. It has led to a drastically different approach to computing, sensing and communications. It has transformed our daily lives beyond measure.

Ground-breaking technologies such as lasers and transistors – the basis for today’s computers and mobile phones – along with a long list of devices ranging from CDs to LED lighting and GPS: these applications and technologies are now mainstream

Quantum made them all possible.

The first quantum revolution expanded our horizons to an amazing extent. Now, the second quantum revolution is almost upon us – based on our growing ability to manipulate and sense quantum effects in customised systems and materials.

 This will mean totally new concepts for devices with a real practical impact.


Some need a relatively short time to move from lab to market and are already in the commercialisation stage. Others are more complex and require years of painstaking research and development to come to fruition.

Some we cannot even imagine yet. The range of potential applications is almost unlimited. So far, scientists have identified four main areas of use: measuring and sensing, communication, computing and simulation.

Quantum sensors: enhanced sensitivity devices that can be used for biomedical imaging, to measure spaces underground, to locate mineral deposits.

Ultra-precise clocks for use in smart energy grids or to timestamp financial transactions; handheld devices to assist maritime navigation.

Quantum communications: quantum physics allows for generating truly random numbers – the base for any encryption scheme. By using the properties of individual photons to exchange encryption codes, snooping is made impossible.

Here, markets include security for telecoms networks, online industries, commercial transactions, as well as user authentication to protect personal data.

Quantum computers will allow for unprecedented computing power. They are the logical ‘next step’ beyond anything that is now envisaged at the high-end of computing technology – including exascale high-performance computing.

They will have the capacity to simulate anything from a climate model to a full next-generation aircraft; or to design new pharmaceuticals, clean energy devices and polymer membranes for fuel cells.

While supercomputers can also conduct these types of simulation, their results are more limited, less precise and significantly slower.

Quantum computers will just have so much more capacity and power. They will process even more data, solve even more complex problems and make major progress possible in artificial intelligence.

Lastly, quantum simulators let scientists capture and play with a set of individual particles and study their behaviour precisely. This allows them to improve their understanding of matter and to design specific materials with tailor-made properties.

Getting ahead of the race

So what is Europe doing about quantum? In fact, quite a lot. We are certainly not standing idle. But we do need to get on with it – others are moving fast.

I would like Europe to be the home to a world-class quantum industry to make the fullest use of quantum technologies, accelerate their development and bring these commercial products to market.

That is why the EU is creating a dedicated programme for quantum: another of our ‘flagship’ initiatives to complement those for grapheneand the human brain project.

These large-scale academic-industrial partnerships are inspired by several scientific disciplines with cross-sectoral expertise that spans many EU countries.

Representatives of academic and research communities will join industry and policymakers at an event on 6 November to discuss progress of the existing Future and Emerging Technologies Flagships, and possible new Flagships.

This event will be especially important because in 2018 we will present our proposal for the EU’s next research and innovation programme.

The quantum flagship, part of our strategy for digitising European industry, will be worth €1 billion in joint public-private investment over 10 years to turn Europe’s already excellent quantum research results into industrial leadership.

We will launch its ramp-up phase in 2018, covering the last three years of the EU’s research funding programme, Horizon 2020Calls for project proposals are now open. The initiative will then continue throughout the next funding period.

Quantum technology is high up on many company and government agendas, where it is viewed as economically and politically strategic to get involved.

But while Europe has many world-class scientists in this field, there is so far little industrial take-up or commercial exploitation here. We need to raise our own involvement, backed by a solid political and financial commitment.

Since EU countries as well as the European Commission have been investing in quantum over the past two decades – more than €500 million – we are in a fairly good position for the future.

However, there is now something of a world­wide race for technology and talent in quantum, which is why I said that we need to get on with it. The alternative is to be dominated by companies in other countries; Asia and the United States, for example.

Despite several national initiatives on quantum, which are of course welcome, we have not yet had a coherent pan-European strategy.

That is now changing, with the report for the high-level expert group on quantum that will be handed over to the Commission at the November 6 conference.

These are the main aims of the quantum flagship: to develop a dynamic environment for quantum research and innovation where ideas can progress smoothly from lab to market; to attract world-class talent to Europe and keep it there; and to consolidate our lead in this exciting technology.

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