In the famous line of American editor Henry Louis Mencken, the intelligence of the American public is underestimated. It’s actually a parable, but the meaning is clear: in order to make money, it’s safe to assume that no one knows anything.
By rights, quantum physics should be extremely profitable. The subject is often used as shorthand for knowledge that is reserved for a small intellectual elite, leaving everyone else scratching their heads. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed last month, the quantum world is so strange that even half-hearted explanations of its fundamentals can bring admiration and admiration.
Can this widespread ignorance – on the puzzle of how cats be both alive and dead, or how particles can exist in two places at once – be capitalized on? The European Commission believes it can. Next week, it will release plans for a continent-wide campaign to turn the mysteries of quantum physics into hard cash.
The plan, called the European Quantum Declaration, will be officially released in the Dutch city of Delft, where the commission hopes a revolution will be born. Eyeing China, Australia, Canada and other countries that have invested heavily in quantum technology, Europe doesn’t want to miss it.
With €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) in funding, scientists and businesses will be expected to translate quantum research into quantum products to create a “more sustainable, more productive, more entrepreneurial and more secure EU”.
These are great hopes. There is no doubt that Europe has been encouraged by the various quantum technologies that have matured in recent years. Quantum sensors can, for example, achieve higher sensitivity and resolution through quantum superposition or entanglement, outperforming classical sensors in various imaging applications. Strategic use of funds could actually take quantum sensors to market in a few years.
But for most quantum technologies, the road to commercialization is much longer and more complicated.
The arguable pinnacle of quantum technologies – building a universal quantum computer – is decades and billions of euros away from targeted investment. But it promises perhaps the biggest benefits: significantly more power for major calculations, such as simulating chemical reactions and – perhaps – machine learning.
This is a project that should not be done in multiple places at once.
Revolutions happen through mass rebellion, not through carefully directed government investment. At some point, investors, entrepreneurs and academia must conspire on this revolution without instructions from above.
The European Quantum Declaration therefore seeks to mobilize a broad base of quantum technologists. Specifically, it plans for an environment in which small, high-capacity quantum-tech businesses can flourish.
Given that a large number of start-up firms fail, how should this plan work in a risky and unproven quantum-technology business? Predicting the likely outcome of the European Commission’s plan is as difficult as determining whether Schrödinger’s cat is dead or alive without opening its box.
Can we take a peek inside the box to get some insights about this business future? Nature has prepared an experiment to try. The project (see go.nature.com/53iiw6) trained seven young quantum physicists to understand and evaluate business ideas in quantum technologies.
The project culminated in a presentation day at Nature’s London office last week, where the physicists’ ideas were examined by a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and leaders in quantum technologies.
A PhD student at University College London invented a quantum-inspired accelerometer with a relatively safe and clear path to market. And two postdocs from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, have ambitions to overtake Google and IBM and build a universal quantum computer based on silicon qubits.
Two of the five ideas presented – an invention that allows quantum computers to be connected, and a start-up that would design quantum machine-learning algorithms – are slated to rely on some of the companies and groups that have previously Have already invested a huge amount. Money to try to build quantum-computing hardware. Both ideas are betting on being able to sell their products to only a few customers.
This sounds like a risky strategy, but it could point to a way to build and maintain the necessary critical mass of start-ups that the European Quantum Manifesto aims for. Focusing investments on a high-risk, high-profit target — such as a universal quantum computer — could create a string of start-ups that each specialize in an integral component or aspect.
Still, it is unlikely that Europe’s quantum-technology initiative will take this route.