Australia: Quantum's early bird

Dr Foley addressed the Quantum World Congress in Washington DC on 30 November 2022.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you. This is a gathering of really eminent people in the world of quantum and I’m honoured to be part of it. These international conversations are vital if we’re going to realise the potential of quantum technologies – and do it in a way that is a net positive for the global community. And I know there are a number of Australians here in Washington for this gathering.

In my remarks today, I want to bring you up to date with our activities in Australia, and then set out some important considerations as we move forward in this exciting sphere of science and technology.

In the title of my talk, I describe Australia as “quantum’s early bird”. This is a reference to the depth of Australian investment and expertise in quantum. We’ve been at it a long time. We invested early – largely because our researchers and public funding bodies recognised the promise of quantum, and the physicists were organised and had strong leadership.

For over two decades we’ve been funding Centres of Excellence devoted to various aspects of quantum. These are collaborative research groups that work across universities and research agencies and industry – in Australia and internationally. They’re designed to bring people together to investigate specific science problems over a longer timeframe than the normal funding cycles, and developed as a natural consequence of research freedom and excellence. We’ve had 14 Centres of Excellence devoted to various aspects of quantum research, including a new one announced this month, devoted to the use of quantum technologies to observe biological processes. It aims to develop technologies including portable brain imagers, and super-fast single protein sensors. Australia has 22 quantum-related research institutions, with researchers from many of them participating in these Centres of Excellence.

We started in quantum in 1959 when the first paper was published on time-correlated photons, and Guy White from my old team at CSIRO published his book Experimental Techniques in Low-Temperature Physics, which is still a go-to text for this subject. Since then, Australian researchers have made theoretical breakthroughs and pioneered many techniques, including in silicon quantum computing, photonics and cold-atom systems.

So it’s a long history. I remember in the 1990s when I worked at the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, I actually called my superconductivity team the quantum engineering group. But that was when quantum was deep in the research community and not yet on the public radar – so my suggestion for using “quantum” in our name was unfortunately not seen as relevant for an industry-facing research organisation. So I had to change it back.

That depth of quantum research is why we have such a wealth of expertise. It’s why we have around 20 and growing quantum-related start-ups in Australia. This spans investments across hardware, software, communications, sensing, cryptography, biology and consultancy capability. 

We have world class expertise in developing silicon-based quantum computing with two start-ups. Another example, Quantum Brilliance, is developing diamond-based room-temperature quantum computing, and working with the Pawsey supercomputer in Western Australia to host the world’s first diamond quantum accelerator. QuintessenceLabs, an Australian start-up, is already selling quantum-based cybersecurity solutions to leading companies globally. It develops quantum true random number generators that produce high quality cryptographic keys for cybersecurity. Q-Ctrl provides firmware for quantum error correction, software that improves hardware performance of quantum computing and quantum sensing. Q-Ctrl’s products are used by leading international firms such as IBM and Rigetti. 

Our researchers are working in precision navigation and timing, sensing, including quantum clocks, diamond-based sensors, and sensing for defence, intelligence, navigation and earth observation, superconducting quantum hardware and NV diamond foundries. Our talent is behind many existing and emerging quantum applications, including those quantum random number generators for security and sensors for mining and civil engineering – a lot of this research is done with the support of international partners.

For example, the UTS Centre for Quantum Software and Information is partnering with DARPA on a quantum benchmarking program. The program will estimate the long-term utility of quantum computers by creating benchmarks that quantitatively measure progress towards transformational computational challenges. The multi-million dollar partnership will involve global companies including HRL Laboratories, Boeing and General Motors and multi-national quantum companies including Zapata Computing, Rigetti Computing, and IonQ.

Now for a country with only a third of one percent of the world’s population, that’s significant. I like to think we’re a pocket rocket when it comes to quantum. This is also why we’ve been seen by countries such as the US as a source of quantum talent.

However, Australia’s ambition goes well beyond supplying a hungry world with expertise. We are building our own quantum industry. As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I am very committed to this, as is the Australian Government. We recognise the transformative implications of quantum technologies, not only to the defence and security sphere, but ultimately to the way all of us live our lives.

I often describe Australia as a Goldilocks country, big enough to build depth, expertise and scale, but not so big that cooperation becomes unwieldly or inefficient. Of course, there’s competition, domestically and internationally, and that’s a good thing. Competition is always invigorating; it sharpens performance. And for supply chains, it keeps a lid on prices. But we’re also working closely together, and I’m advocating strongly for a collaborative approach.

We’re in the process of finalising a National Quantum Strategy and have established a National Quantum Advisory Committee made up of quantum and business experts around the country. We’ve also established a network among the state and territory governments.

We have one goal in Australia – to advance the quantum sector for the purpose of building knowledge, speeding discovery, lifting the complexity of our economy and improving lives.

For us, the opportunity goes beyond quantum. We have large deposits of critical minerals and rare earths, and, as you know, a great depth of expertise in mining. We’re orienting our economy around the renewables sector, minerals processing, the semiconductor supply chain, and emerging technologies such as green steel. This creates high-tech synergies.

I know there’s a lot of talk at the moment about the tens of billions or even hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in quantum by countries around the world. The scale of investment is welcome and important. But it’s a blunt measure of a country’s involvement. Australia’s activity, creativity, and technical achievements go much deeper than some of those comparisons might suggest.

And our unique advantage in size and expertise allows us to shape and influence the trajectory in quantum and other transformative sectors, tinker with things as necessary and move them along.

Another implication of our size is that we are focused outward. Our domestic market is small, and so we’re tuned to the international marketplace, whether in research and development or in commercial opportunities and the international supply chains in critical technologies.

And we have much to offer the international community. We have that strength of research and expertise. We have strong regional standing in the Pacific region. We’re a connector into the Asia-Pacific, and our quantum leadership in the region will open new opportunities for collaboration and diplomacy, including through ASEAN and Indo-Pacific nations, Europe, North America, and with our South Pacific neighbours. And we have a stable democracy with strengths in regulation.

Australia has a number of international collaborations and partnerships relating to quantum, and we will continue to identify new collaborators. Our aim in these relationships is to boost opportunities for quantum businesses, establish norms and set standards, build collaborative research, strengthen supply chains, and explore quantum solutions to global problems.

Governments around the world are looking at where the next wave of prosperity will come from, and it is unanimously in emerging technologies such as quantum. For Australia alone, quantum technologies are projected to add at least $3.4 billion to our GDP by 2040. Productivity gains from quantum computing, sensing and communication could add up to $2.9 billion value to Australia’s economy.

However, quantum is a global endeavour. We know that no single country or company alone can create a full stack customer solution. It will take the collective effort of researchers, businesses and governments around the world to see quantum use cases brought to life. And that is why building and maintaining strong and productive international partnerships are an essential enabler of research and commercialisation.

There are various ways in which we can partner internationally to support this ecosystem – whether by collaborative programs, standards setting work or providing access to infrastructure and training. For example, Australia is one of 12 countries working together to accelerate discovery, share resources, and jointly address global challenges. This will include the Entanglement Exchange research portal for students, postdocs, and researchers in quantum information science. 

Through the Quad agreement with the US, Japan and India, and through AUKUS, Australia is seeking to accelerate quantum investment and capability. We are also working bilaterally. As you know, we signed a joint statement of cooperation with the US this time last year, aimed at improved market access in both directions and knowledge sharing. IBM, AWS, Google, Microsoft and Rigetti are very active in Australia. And ColdQuantum, which changed its name today to be Infleqtion, announced its intention to set up in Australia.

Australian companies have expanded into the US, and further afield. Quantum Brilliance, Q-Ctrl and Nomad Atomics setting up offices in Germany, and there is increased collaboration with UK companies. We’re working closely with Japan, where I travelled in September. The Australian National Beamline Facility at the KEK Photon Factory in Tsukuba is a real success in quantum physics; and a collaboration between researchers in Australia and Japan recently developed the world’s first quantum thermometer to measure the minute changes in temperature in the fabric of space-time. 

Of course, we’re all grappling with how to balance the great advantages of open international science with the defence and security implications of quantum technologies. It’s the age-old juggle between professional friends, close friends and special friends!

It’s probably fair to say that we’re all still working to find that balance. But as you can see, Australia’s international engagement on quantum is broad and collaborative. And as Australia’s Chief Scientist, I have a strong commitment to international collaboration in all aspects of science and research. This is how breakthroughs happen. The trickier the science and the more urgent the solutions, the more important these global research connections become.

And when you have a whole lot of smart people working together, that leads to extraordinary human endeavour. The LIGO detector is a great example. As is, the Large Hadron Collider through CERN, the James Webb telescope, and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project, the mapping of the human genome. Australia had an important part in each of these mega-projects. One of my old teams at CSIRO developed the optical coatings for LIGO. They were among the most uniform and precise optical coatings ever made, ensuring the laser light remained clean and stable as it travelled through the detectors. This was a very niche capability, hidden away in a lab in Australia, and developed from decades of work in optics and thin films.

And this is the way it always works. Whenever we have breakthroughs, a major step up in understanding or a significant technical achievement, it’s always been the result of a global approach.

Quantum is certainly in this category. A quantum computer will be one of humanity’s greatest achievements, one of most complex machines ever made. I often describe myself as a quantum optimist. I believe we will have a full fault-tolerant quantum computer within a decade. But of course, I may be wrong. There are, as I’m sure everyone at this event knows, very significant hurdles. In many ways, this is still a science project. And when we realise it, it will be made up of contributions from many niche aspects of science from many parts of the world. This is why I continue to advocate for global collaborations in quantum and other areas of science and research. To maximise the chances of early success, we need to bring together our collective intellectual firepower.

We also have to be talking the same quantum language to avoid a tower of Babel, which will delay advances and complicate interoperability. I will always remember the perplexed looks in my own field of high-temperature superconductivity, when the critical current of the Josephson Junction we developed in Australia was reported to be three times higher in Japan than in the US and Australia during a round robin standards test. We were expecting this to be a simple measurement to test the logistics of sending samples around the world. We eventually worked out that we were measuring differently in each country; Japan cooled it more slowly, whereas the US and Australia cooled it quickly, trapping magnetic flux inside. Another example from my field is the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, the SQUID, which still has no standard measurements for “noise” or sensitivity. To know how sensitive a SQUID is you really have to buy it and test it yourself.

I appreciate that these are very niche examples, but they have remained with me as a lesson in just how important it is to have standard definitions and measurement techniques, so we’re talking the same language. For quantum computing, we need to have agreement on what are the measures to say we have achieved quantum advantage.

I want to come now to three things that I regard as critical considerations for the global quantum community as we accelerate this set of technologies.

First, we must continue to invest heavily in the basic science, the process of discovery. I described quantum computing earlier as still very much a science project. The same can be said of many of the potential applications in quantum, whether it’s in health, communications, sensing, encryption and other areas.

The potential is extraordinary in many areas. Quantum computing could be a game-changer in climate technologies to help us reach that difficult net-zero target. In everything from battery chemistry, to the efficiency of solar cells, to reduce methane emissions, and to find new catalysts for hydrogen, quantum simulation and computing holds great promise.

But we don’t know precisely how it will play out and over what timeframe. We can’t say for sure which areas will see progress that surpasses expectations, and where it will fall short. Timelines are very uncertain and, as we’ve been told, there is “a significant probability of quantum technology surprise”. Discovery is a rich and unpredictable process!

As leaders in this field, we need to keep reinforcing that message, and make sure investors and decision-makers understand that not every avenue will emerge in the sun. It’s a patient game, where not every move and not every experiment will have a positive result.

But for each idea that we test and each avenue that we enter, we learn more, and build the knowledge base from which new and unexpected discoveries will follow. This is how to maintain the excitement, interest and momentum that we have at the moment. It’s the scientific process in action, and it’s what I love about my profession.

Second, the skills gaps. It sometimes feels as though advanced economies have entered the international talent wars. I think there must be a reality TV show in this! We’re all competing for the same pool of people and pinning hopes on skilled migration to solve significant skills shortages in quantum and across a range of critical industries. It’s like an upside version of musical chairs, where the music stops and everyone rushes to sit down in the same place. Only in this case, we keep adding chairs.

Of course, this is a zero sum game. The only way to tackle the skills shortage is for each of us to shift the dial on STEM engagement in our own jurisdictions.

And to be frank, this shouldn’t be so hard. Kids are born scientists, explorers and inventors – all kids, not only the boys. With the right expectations and the right teaching, there is every reason to expect that we can close the skills deficit in each of our countries – rather than imagining that someone else is going to solve this problem for us.

In Australia, we have a number of skills initiatives, including a focus on transferable skills which recognises the uncertainty embedded in these disruptive sectors. At the same time, we will continue to support the international flow of talent, which has always been an important part of our research and innovation ecosystem. We welcome international researchers and research collaborations, and I know Australians have been picked up by some of the world’s biggest commercial quantum initiatives.

The third and final consideration that I want to put on the table today relates to regulation – the frameworks in which we develop these technologies to ensure they remain a force for good.

Australia was part of the development of first governance guidelines for quantum computing through the World Economic Forum process last year. We have continued this work – looking at ways the principles could be piloted to explore their application to potential use cases. The core values set out in the Quantum Governance Principles are an excellent and sensible guide.

I don’t think any of us would say we got it right in relation to the first digital regulation. And now we’re struggling in many areas of our online lives – whether it’s data security, privacy, misinformation, dangerous information, or a concentration of power. We would do well to ask ourselves, if we could go back 25 years – before YouTube, Facebook, before Instagram, TikTok and the rest – if we could go back and do it again, what measures would we put in place to mitigate against those negative outcomes?

Of course, we would not apply the brakes. Despite those negatives, digital capabilities have been a force for extraordinary advances and enormous good. But I suggest that what we would do better is to regulate and educate. We would craft an operating procedure and set the framework in which the digitisation would roll out.

What might we have included in that framework? Well, no doubt, the overarching considerations would have been privacy and transparency. Privacy and protection for individual data and for agency over our lives. And transparency so that we have a full understanding of how digital interactions are impacting our lives.

In the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence, so much of the activity happens below the surface, well outside our field of view, let alone our capacity to intervene. The starting point is to improve visibility of this activity going on below the surface. I saw this described as like a fish tank, where we can see the algorithmic fish in action. And I thought this was a very effective way of thinking about it. Transparency is the starting point for being able to counteract the negative impacts and mitigate the risks.

My suggestion then, is that we maintain a clear-eyed understanding of why we have all signed up to this mission with such enthusiasm – and carry that understanding into all of our planning as we move forward.

We’re pursuing the promise of quantum partly for the sake of discovery, simply to learn. But also – and ultimately – this shared mission is about improving our lives. It’s about solving environmental, medical and energy challenges, understanding more about our place in the cosmos as we chart humanity’s future. Those are the goals to guide our actions.

Thank you. I very much look forward to hearing from others at this forum and to the discussions that I will have with a number of you.