Ottawa has unveiled its plan for spending $360-million on a national strategy to prepare for and profit from a coming revolution in quantum technology.
While the early reviews are positive, leaders in the field say there is no time to lose as new developments in the field inch ever closer to upending key aspects of the computer industry, with game-changing implications for the entire economy. The federal government first allocated the money in 2021 to be spent over seven years.
“Top to bottom there’s been a lot of movement,” said Stephanie Simmons, a researcher at Simon Fraser University and founder of the B.C.-based quantum technology company Photonic Inc. “The hardware is making progress, the software is making progress, the user cases are being developed.”
Dr. Simmons was among those standing alongside federal Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Friday when he announced the new strategy at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. During the event, Mr. Champagne, emphasized the government’s overarching goal of translating Canada’s strengths in quantum research into jobs and economic growth.
In an accompanying document, the strategy prioritizes the development of Canada’s capabilities in quantum computing, quantum-secure communications and quantum sensors. To support that development, the strategy also organizes resources into three funding pillars:
- $141-million for basic and applied research
- $45-million to develop and retain expertise in the quantum sector, including attracting expertise from abroad
- $169-million for turning research into products and services and supporting access to global markets
“In order for business to succeed, we need to think ahead,” Mr. Champagne said. “We need to really think where the puck is going, and I can tell you the puck is going in the direction of quantum.”
The metaphor stands in contrast to the weird physics that underpins all quantum phenomena.
Unlike hockey pucks and other everyday objects, the particles of light and matter that form the foundations of the material world are far more ambiguous in their nature and motion. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that gives quantum technology its unique power, a form of subatomic multitasking that allows for a mixture of possibilities to occur simultaneously.
In practical terms, that can translate into a quantum computer capable of making rapid calculations of a type that would not be possible even with the most powerful conventional computer system. It would allow for the immediate cracking of standard codes used to protect financial transactions and other sensitive information. At the same time, a quantum-enabled communication system could be used to transmit information in a way that cannot be hacked.
Other applications include identifying molecules that may prove crucial as pharmaceuticals or in the energy sector. And quantum devices can allow for measurements with exquisite sensitivity, a capability that is expected to transform environmental monitoring and medical imaging, among other fields.
As part of the federal plan, Dr. Simmons and other experts will sit on an external panel to advise the government on the implementation of the national strategy.
Dr. Simmons said the quantum technology revolution is likely to unfold differently from what has taken place in artificial intelligence, where a major leap in the capability of learning algorithms that was achieved over a decade ago has gradually led to an array of unanticipated commercial products – including, most recently, the text generator ChatGPT.
With quantum technology, many of the applications have long been known and the software needed to realize them already in development. Once the technology reaches a point where the software can run reliably, there will be no delay in those applications being put to use.
“There are these things that you can’t do any other way and we just need to unlock them,” Dr. Simmons said. “That’s what is really driving a lot of the excitement.”
Canada is frequently described as an early mover in the quantum space with impressive research expertise at its universities and some pioneering companies that have made their mark over the past decade. However, the competition is accelerating, particularly in the United States, Europe and Japan.
The question is whether the federal strategy will prove to be too little too late for Canada to hold its position as the sector booms.
“Not if we execute assertively and in a focused way,” said Michele Mosca, who chairs Quantum Industry Canada, an association of more than 40 Canadian companies in the quantum sector. “We need to get serious about translating the opportunity into real economic impact for Canadians.”
One of the objectives of the strategy is the establishment of a quantum communications network across Canada. If achieved, the network would be a key step toward a quantum-ready infrastructure that business and government will both need to function securely in the future.
The federal strategy also dovetails with other efforts under way within the government including at the National Research Council, which has been partnering with external scientists and companies to develop quantum devices.
Aimee Gunther, who is deputy director of the NRC’s program on quantum sensors, said the strategy would help co-ordinate activity across government and the sector more broadly.
Dr. Gunther added that the consultation process that led to the strategy was a “cathartic” one for people eager to see the sector flourish in Canada.
“To be able to have all the different types of challenges and the different types of opportunities outlined – I think that that was exciting – and to be able to make people focus on the big picture has been good, too,” she said.