Quantum computing is on the verge of sparking a paradigm shift. Once in the realm of academic theory, quantum computing goes beyond the binary limitations of the classical computer – which processes information in bits represented as ones and zeros – to solve problems considered intractable on even the world’s most advanced supercomputers. But to ensure Canada takes advantage of this point of inflection, government, industry and academic stakeholders must work hand-in-hand to do three things: enable access to leading-edge quantum computing technology, expand education and skills development, and foster deep collaboration focused on the most promising commercial industries.
To bolster Canada’s leadership in quantum technology, the federal government announced in its 2021 budget a $360-million funding commitment to build a national quantum strategy. This is welcome news, as quantum computing holds the potential to solve the most difficult problems in areas such as chemistry and materials, finance, health care and climate sciences that are considered intractable today, even on the world’s most powerful computing and AI systems.
Real-world applications of quantum are being tested right now in financial services to better predict the complexity of the markets, improve fraud detection and analyze risk. On climate, quantum algorithms are helping to simulate chemical reactions to discover tomorrow’s sustainable batteries and carbon-capture technologies. Quantum encryption is leading to inevitable disruption in cybersecurity. All stakeholders must ready their workforces now with quantum-proficient teams to adapt and leverage this technology as it matures.
Canada’s National Research Council has cited forecasts developed by third-party economists, who project that by 2030 Canada will grow an $8.2-billion quantum technology industry, employing 16,000 people and generating $3.5 billion for the government. Estimations are that by 2040, quantum technology will reach 50 per cent, growing into a $142.4-billion industry with 229,000 jobs.
While IBM has been investing in quantum research for many years, in 2020 it established a quantum network hub at the Université de Sherbrooke, made possible by Quebec’s Ministry of Economy and Innovation. A joint team of quantum experts works with researchers and businesses, such as CMC Microsystems, to provide cloud-based access to the world’s most advanced quantum systems. This collaborative approach aims to ensure Canadians are ready when quantum revolutionizes industries from coast to coast.
A 2019 McKinsey report ranked Canada fifth in the G7 in total expenditure on quantum science, and first per capita on quantum research. It is likely that quantum systems will evolve to become a user interface that allows errors to be addressed by software developers, rather than through hardware fixes. This will open up an entirely new field of application for industry.
To be sure, there is a need for more mathematicians and physicists who can work deeply within a quantum system to optimize performance, but there is also a need for front-end, quantum-proficient software developers who can tune the technology to focus on practical uses and business professionals who can translate business needs into quantum terms.
Sustaining Canada’s research and commercial leadership in quantum computing will require stakeholders to focus on six key actions over the next three to five years.
First, Canada must retain its existing talent, and it must immediately turn our efforts to attracting highly qualified personnel through academic training and incentives, and bring in new quantum-proficient technical professionals.
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Second, we must develop stronger expertise in hybrid classical and quantum computing systems, where existing high-performance computing systems are leveraged to transition research and industry toward quantum applications as capabilities increase.
Third, governments should do all they can to foster practical collaborations between leading private sector firms and academia, like the IBM Q Hub in Sherbrooke, to ensure sustainable academic and commercial ecosystems.
Fourth, Canada’s leadership position in quantum technology can be strengthened by manufacturing even more advanced hardware and components, thereby securing important ingredients of the hybrid computing and quantum supply chain. We saw the effect of global supply chains being stress tested during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. IBM’s Bromont facility is a global leader in technology hardware manufacturing.
Fifth, hosting world-class quantum computers in secure facilities on Canadian soil will provide academic and government researchers and industry access to the technology, and assist quantum start-ups. Our first international uses for the Quantum System One at data centres in Germany and Japan are significant investments that support the quantum strategies of these countries.
By facilitating quantum computing access through hosted systems, Canada could strengthen its leadership in science, business and education, and benefit from a stronger position to attract and retain highly skilled talent as global competition intensifies.
Finally, we need a broad ecosystem of quantum enabling technology. Quantum software and algorithm development, middleware and specific industry applications that bring competitive advantage will thrive once the foundations of the quantum landscape are in place. A co-ordinated ecosystem will allow for the rapid dissemination of quantum computing capabilities across industries through national ecosystems and partnerships.
Co-existing within a conventional computing environment, quantum is poised to reinvent the worlds of business, science, education and government in fundamentally new ways. It took classical computing many decades to mature to the sophisticated cloud-based services of today – yet quantum computing can take this same leap in just a few short years. We believe that we can get there together, and that Canada can continue to lead the way.