Quantum Technology: The Business Side

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Wilhelm Kaenders gave a “Visionary Speakers” talk on quantum science and business on Wednesday at FiO 2017.

Attendees at this year’s Frontiers in Optics meeting have had lots of opportunities to learn about cutting-edge quantum science, from work in quantum metrology and communication to quantum memories and simulations. But one of the meeting’s three “Visionary Speakers” keynote talks on Wednesday—while it, too, included plenty of interesting science—focused on the business and political issues emerging as quantum technology drives toward real applications.

The speaker was OSA Fellow Wilhelm Kaenders, the cofounder of TOPTICA Photonics AG, Germany, and he stressed that he intended to provide a “small-company perspective” on what’s happening worldwide in the quantum business arena. Today’s quantum scene is “remarkable from a scientific perspective,” he said, “but is also starting to evolve into some opportunities not only in business, but also in a lot of issues that are linked to more strategic and national interests.”

From “Quantum 1.0” to “Quantum 2.0”

Kaenders described TOPTICA as a “quantum-enabling-technology” company—that is, a company supplying the lasers and other technologies that underpin efforts at quantum computing, simulation and metrology, even for physical implementations that involve non-photonic systems such as cooled atoms and nitrogen-vacancy centers. And being a quantum-enabling-technology company could, he suggested, be a very good place to be.

That’s because the physics and engineering world is moving from a theoretical understanding of quantum states and early lab experiments on quantum systems (what Kaenders called “Quantum 1.0”) to technologies that seek to actively control and exploit delicate quantum properties such as superposition, entanglement and quantum coherence (“Quantum 2.0”). “Quantum mechanics is not new,” he said. “It’s the ability to control quantum phenomena at a new level that people are excited about.”

Government interest

Indeed, the excitement has extended to governments, which are jumping on the quantum-technology bandwagon with sizable research investments. Kaenders noted in particular the substantial and unusually strategic commitment of the U.K. to quantum science. That effort began with a “quantum manifesto” a number of years ago that grew out of efforts by OSA Fellow and 2004 President Peter Knight. And it has continued, Kaenders said, with a significant investment in education, national laboratories and other steps, under an overall strategic timeline that stretches across decades.

But numerous other governments, too, are intrigued by quantum’s prospects, Kaenders said. The European Union, for example, has started a €1 billion “quantum technologies flagship.” And he cited other big-ticket initiatives in Canada’s “Quantum Valley,” in Singapore, in The Netherlands, in Denmark, in Germany, in the U.S., in China—which, Kaenders noted, recently “shocked the world” with its demonstration of quantum technology in space.

Convincing the engineers—and the public

Kaenders suggested that this increasing government interest—coupled with the growing potential application space for quantum techniques in areas such as computing (driven by the ultimate physical limitations to Moore’s law)—imposes some interesting requirements on photonics companies seeking to serve this market. For one, engineers, many of whom largely inhabit the classical world, will need to get acquainted with quantum concepts at an early stage.

“We need to have quantum technology as an engineering skill set,” he said. “The engineers are the ones who need to be convinced that quantum has something for them.”

Also—albeit perhaps in a different respect than suggested in a policy talk later on Wednesday by Rush Holt—Kaenders noted that moving quantum technology forward will require different ways of talking to the public. “It’s important, as we leave this room and go out to talk to politicians, that we find ways to help people talk about quantum,” he argued. “We have to find ways to get the words under control … to help the public understand what we’re doing, and what’s in it for them.”

A “global endeavor”

For all of this to be successful, said Kaenders, the quantum field will need increasingly to make decisions on standards, interfaces and other questions, and—given the numerous national governments showing an interest—to do so an international context. “The quantum world is too complicated for one country,” he said. “I think this field is a global endeavor, and it should be open and not covered up.”

In terms of the immediate markets for a quantum-enabling-technologies company like TOPTICA, Kaenders identified the business of supplying labs researching quantum technology (which he called “a strong market in itself,”) but also other niches such as “the inner and outer security market” and the market for spaceborne technologies. But he suggested that we “need to be careful” about expectations that quantum will penetrate broad industrial or consumer markets any time soon.

“Quantum technology is a community effort—industry and academia,” Kaenders concluded. “We need strong national champions, and we need global scientific cooperation.”

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