Quantum computing companies face new challenges in 2021
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
We speak with Michael Biercuk, CEO and Founder of Q-CTRL, about how quantum computing companies face new challenges in 2021 and what will need to happen for quantum to spur overall growth this year.
The most substantial quantum computing achievements in 2020 were the combined demonstrations of high-quantum-volume (performance) systems available via cloud interfaces with detailed roadmaps for system growth. For instance, IBM and Google both announced plans for machines with 1000 qubits – potentially enough for near-term applications achieving quantum advantage for a commercially relevant problem. And the timeline is far faster than many expected; plans call for 1000 qubits (vs today’s ~50-75) by 2023. It’s thrilling to see and directly support this pace of progress among quantum computing hardware manufacturers.
We recently caught up with Michael J. Biercuk, the CEO and Founder of Q-CTRL to get his insights on the past year in quantum computing and what 2021 will hold for the industry.
ADM: What were the key challenges for the QC industry and your business specifically?
Biercuk: This was undoubtedly a challenging year due to COVID-forced cancellations of major events, restrictions on our staff and closure of our physical offices. Sadly, many partners and new customers have also experienced extended laboratory shutdowns due to the public health crisis, or have even faced uncertainty in their jobs.
The lack of global travel has also stymied a key mode of interaction with our clients, and has even had major direct financial hits for us. As an example, the American Physical Society March Meeting – which was to be our first major trade show – was cancelled 12h before it began. Many of our team had already travelled from Australia to Denver before the cancellation came. Of course, these challenges were shared broadly across the entire industry, and were clearly much worse for those teams requiring constant access to experimental labs.
In our case we’ve used the time we’ve saved on travel as an opportunity to build on our strengths and release what is clearly the best – and best validated – quantum control product on the market. We’re hoping that our friends around the world remain safe during this difficult period.
ADM: What factors do you believe will spur overall industry growth in 2021?
Biercuk: We see a few key drivers for the growth of the quantum industry in 2021. The first is general market certainty around the US Presidential Election and the emergence of viable COVID19 vaccine candidates. Second, and more specific, is the continued development of enterprise use cases for near-term quantum computers. Improved hardware performance, democratization of hardware access via new cloud services, and expansion of the quantum computing community is bringing novel use cases for near-term machines to the fore, driving investment from enterprises keen to remain ahead of this emerging technology.
Next, we are seeing continued government strategic investment in quantum technology. Q-CTRL, for instance, was awarded an Innovare research project with the Australian National University on quantum sensing. We’re looking forward to greater direct industry support in the US, as we’ve seen in the UK system. We also believe that growth in partnerships and tool integrations between different industry players will drive both new capabilities and expanded usage. The Q-CTRL/Quantum Machines partnership falls into this category, helping to diversify the user base for our tools, and augment the power of theirs. We expect similar integrations to grow across the QC stack as various organizations seek to maximize customer value and value capture.
Finally, constraints on hardware performance are becoming more limiting to enterprise users; fortunately, Q-CTRL’s new enterprise-level offerings will provide an opportunity for quantum computing end-users to leverage the same kind of technology as the hardware giants themselves. This may provide a decisive advantage as enterprise seeks to unlock the hidden performance of third-party quantum computers. Think of it a bit like the way the finance industry leveraged specialized computing solutions to gain competitive advantages in high-frequency trading. With Q-CTRL’s custom FIRE OPAL offerings, savvy enterprise can gain similar competitive advantages even if they rely on cloud quantum computing hardware.
ADM: What do you see as impediments to industry growth next year, if any?
Biercuk: We remain extremely bullish about the growth of this sector but do see headwinds emerging. The first and most substantial is a set of looming or proposed restrictions on cross-border activities and collaborations. These come in the form of potential export controls and limits on foreign investment in businesses conducting “sensitive” research in quantum technology. Many organizations in this sector are international with offices in multiple locations– from large companies like IBM to smaller players like Q-CTRL.
"Quantum computing companies face new challenges in 2021"
Beyond the challenges of technical exports to customers, we also face the challenge of potential limitations on our ability to speak with members of our own teams in other jurisdictions. Combined with ongoing travel restrictions and limits on office usage these will cause acute issues if implemented prematurely. Ultimately the proposed regulations are looking to transplant a cold-war framework designed to limit the shipment of tangible assets into a cloud-first software-driven industry. The fit is challenging at best and poorly crafted regulations have the potential to cause substantial self-inflicted harm to an emerging sector. All of us are keen to work with governments in various jurisdictions to ensure sensible regulations are implemented that recognize long-term strategic partnerships among e.g. Five Eyes nations.
And finally, as always, quantum technology remains a research-driven deeptech industry. It’s essential that investors understand this (and the associated timelines to value capture), and that governments actively move to fill their roles as early customers of advanced technology. With the challenges of COVID19 and associated economic crises we need to ensure that robust private-sector and government investment in technologies that may be some years away from tangible benefits continue. Fortunately, we did not see a major contraction of end-user interest through 2020, and we hope that global economic conditions improve through 2021.
ADM: What do you foresee as coming technology breakthroughs/innovations in 2021?
Biercuk: 2021 is likely to be a year where quantum computer system sizes and capabilities grow, and more and more offerings shift to cloud-based “Quantum as a Service” delivery. It will place us well into industry roadmaps towards 1000 qubit machines, meaning we’ll see some very impressive quantum-volume metrics being reported. We’ll also likely be a bit overwhelmed by continuing claims and counterclaims of performance from different manufacturers – all of that will work out in the wash as applications continue to emerge. There’s more than enough space in the community for multiple hardware providers, especially as system architectures and software stacks remain an active area of R&D.
ADM: How do you think the incoming Biden administration will differ in its support for the quantum technology industry from the previous administration? What advice would you give the Biden administration on what they could do to best help the industry?
Biercuk: President Elect Biden has telegraphed from the start his support for science. And early moves suggest he will build on President Trump’s initial investments in the US National Quantum Initiative. If nothing else, VP Elect Harris was one of the earliest supporters of the field. For instance, President Elect Biden’s commitment of $300Bn over four years to support advanced-technology competitiveness is a welcome focusing of his administration on science and technology as an investment in the future, rather than a cost-center.
I wrote about the need for a strategic US approach to investment in quantum science in the context of national security in 2017 and it’s been wonderful to see this ambition fulfilled. We’re proud to now be involved in multiple DoE and NSF research centres and look forward to an expansion of these research investments.
I’d love the opportunity to share with President Elect Biden the scale of opportunity for small, agile companies to make major new contributions. And we hope to demonstrate just how much US investment in basic science is now translating to technological advantage and economic prosperity for a broad range of employees. We know the President Elect is well connected to large, powerful players in Silicon Valley. We want to make sure that as he learns more about our field he discovers how much technological advancement is coming from the startup space.
About Michael J. Biercuk
Michael J. Biercuk is the CEO and Founder of Q-CTRL, a quantum technology company, and a Professor of Quantum Physics and Quantum Technology at the University of Sydney. In his academic position he leads a research team as a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, exploring the role of control engineering in quantum-coherent systems. Michael earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and his Masters and PhD from Harvard University. He held a research fellowship in the Ion Storage Group at NIST Boulder, and has served as a full-time technical consultant to DARPA, helping to steer government investments in quantum information and advanced computer architectures. Michael is a SXSW and TEDx speaking alumnus and a multi-time Australian Museum Eureka Prize nominee and winner.
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