Last week, quantum experts, industry representatives and policy-makers gathered in Helsinki for an event on “Exploring and Making Quantum Technology”. They agreed that the EU needs to pool expertise to build an ecosystem based on research, deployment and skills, in order to keep Europe as a leader in quantum technologies.

As a speaker at this event, which was organised by the EU-funded Quantum Flagship, I was pleased to see that there is a common European ambition to steer the second quantum revolution and make the most of its transformative power for science, industry and society as a whole.  Quantum technologies use the properties of quantum effects – the interactions of molecules, atoms, and even smaller particles, known as quantum objects – to create practical applications in many different fields, from computing and communications to health, finance, transport, and national security and defence. This critical technology will generate a multi-billion euro market in new technological solutions for business and citizens.

Quantum in Europe: the current state of play

As President-elect Ursula von der Leyen stated in September 2019, quantum technologies are very high on the agenda of the European Commission – and this is nothing new. Back in 1999, the EU was the first global player to create a research programme on quantum information processing and communications. Subsequently, quantum has benefited from more EU investment: most significantly, with the launch of the Quantum Flagship in October 2018.

With a planned investment of €1 billion over 10 years, the Flagship is mobilising around 2000 scientists and industrialists, in a joint and collaborative initiative on an unprecedented scale. Its main objective is to consolidate European scientific leadership and excellence in quantum technologies, and to position Europe as leader in the industrial landscape. The Flagship’s 20 research projects are focusing on four main application sectors: quantum communications, quantum computing, quantum simulation and quantum sensing and metrology, with a budget of around €130 million. Over a third of participants come from industry, half of them small and medium-sized enterprises.

Of course, Europe is not alone in seeing quantum as a key area for the future. For the US, China, Canada and Japan too, quantum technology is a top strategic priority. Still,  Europe’s strengths in many areas of quantum research mean that it remains competitive in this international race. For example, Europe is today a world leader in ion trap technology, holding the world record in the number of entangled qubits (20 qubits for now, and due to reach around 50 qubits in the next 12 months). The quantum computer based at the University of Innsbruck that was used to break the record is now accessible through the cloud to quantum researchers and companies willing to test their applications. By early 2020, Innsbruck will have two more machines available to the quantum community.

Moreover, Europe already boasts world-class quantum simulators such as the Atos Quantum Learning Machine already adopted by major quantum players. Europe’s excellence in quantum computing is highly recognized by US companies, which are increasingly teaming up with EU academia.  

Looking ahead to the future

To guarantee a strong leadership role in the field, the EU plans to structure its quantum strategy around four pillars: research and development, large-scale infrastructures in quantum communications and computing, competitive industry and skilled workforce, and international cooperation. Here is how we intend to make this happen:

  • Further investment in research and technological development in the Quantum Flagship priority areas, as part of the planned research funding programme Horizon Europe in continuation of investment under Horizon 2020.   
  • Investment in large-scale, state-of-the-art quantum infrastructures. Since June 2019, 10 EU countries have signed the EuroQCI Declaration, and several others have expressed an interest in joining. Our ambition is to deploy in Europe a quantum communication network in the next 10 years, in order to protect the key digital assets of the EU and its Member States.  Another ambition for the near future is to build a hybrid-computing infrastructure, which will interconnect quantum-computing resources with the high performance computing ones, currently developed under the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking. The future Digital Europe programme would support these ambitions.
  • Investment in  integrating existing leading technologies and capabilities in several different fields (AI, cybersecurity, and high performance computing, as well as quantum) to create a competitive industry with a technological supply chain, thus building upon Europe’s unique expertise. We would like to encourage further development of new start-ups and the scaling-up of existing ones. It goes without saying that our vision of Europe as a leader in digital and quantum relies on attracting the best talents, upgrading competences and skills, and providing sufficient support to strengthen the quantum knowledge base in Europe. Our intention is to use the Digital Europe programme for dedicated training and skill development actions in quantum, involving also the higher education system.
  • Finally, Europe needs an international strategy to work very closely with its international partners, pursuing a win/win collaboration.

Overall, Europe is well positioned to lead the second quantum revolution and profit from the market opportunities it will offer. Our strengths are manifold: we have excellent scientists, committed Member States, and a joint and coherent strategic research agenda, while our academia and industry are working closely together to achieve our shared bold ambitions. The time has now come to realise them!