At the inaugural AFR National Innovation Summit, in August, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Greg Hunt MP told the delegates that the Australian government had “contributed to and secured private sector investment to build the world’s first silicon quantum computing circuit.” He noted that, in addition to the Government’s AU$25 million ($19.2 million) commitment, Telstra and Commonwealth Bank of Australia had each pledged AU$10 million ($7.6 million) to fund this world-leading research.
“This investment will help ensure we not only maintain our competitive edge in the global race to build a quantum computer, but also grow a quantum ecosystem and industry in Australia. A quantum sector will create new high-tech job opportunities for our nation,” Hunt said.
For Vikram Sharma, CEO of QuintessenceLabs, this “quantum ecosystem” is a concentration of organisations, both private and public, research and commercially focused, with expertise in a range of science and technology disciplines with relevance to quantum technology. “Having a certain critical mass of such organisations helps build a healthy, growing quantum industry, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas and skills, and the development of high calibre, trained and experience workforce,” he says.
He explains that the first quantum revolution of the 20th century gave us new rules that govern physical reality. “It allowed us to better understand our world and use this understanding to drive technological advances,” he says, adding that, for example, it enabled us to understand the periodic table, chemical interactions, and electronic wave functions that underpin the electronic semiconductor physics, driving the computer-chip industry and the Information Age, as well as the photoelectric effect, enabling the development of solar cells and photocopying machines, as well as the laser. This first revolution of quantum mechanics evolved into many of the core technologies underpinning modern society.
Now, Sharma believes, we are in the early stages of a second quantum revolution, which holds the promise of even more transformational changes: with it, we are going beyond observing and understanding to actively altering the quantum face of our physical world. “It will be responsible for many of the key technological advances of the 21st century, and it is essential that Australia be part of this adventure and helps drive the technologies that will shape our world. The economic benefit of successfully harnessing the commercial potential of these technologies represents a global-scale opportunity.”
According to Sharma, the research into the practical uses of quantum mechanics is a particularly bright spot in Australian higher education, as is the strong partnership that exists between the academic and research community and small innovative businesses. Companies usually do not have the time or resources to spend on the foundational science behind their products, and academia does not usually have the ability to take an idea from theory to prototype, let alone commercial production. “Together however, they can move mountains,” he says.
Researchers at the ANU and other institutions such as the University of New South Wales are leading the charge towards new ultra-powerful quantum computers, as well as collaborating on innovations in the area of quantum cyber-security. “This is a particularly important application of quantum science, applying its capabilities to addressing some of our most challenging data security challenges. In this way, our investment in quantum technology is also helping us tackle an equally pressing challenge, that of securing our data from cyber-attacks, present and future,” Sharma says.
QuintessenceLabs grew out of work in this area conducted initially at the Australian National University (ANU) by Sharma. He then founded the company to bring these developments to market. Quantum cyber-security technology allows QuintessenceLabs to provide companies with the most secure keys, produced from a quantum source, enabling data to be encrypted securely - safe from the weaknesses of pseudo-random keys. Coupled with classical security concepts such as key and policy management and secure key stores, this really helps build a secure foundation on which to protect data.
Down the road, the company says its emergent Quantum Key Distribution solutions will allow organisations to safely exchange keys in a manner where the security of the exchange derives from the laws of physics. “Such key exchanges would be safe even from quantum computer attacks, ensuring data protection for the future,” Sharma says.
Steven Armitage, Country Director of Australia for the SANS Institute, said in a recent cyber security community webcast, organised by the SANS Institute and attended by more than 100 information security professionals from Australia and the APAC region, that the challenges facing cyber security from the emergence of quantum computing technologies were enthusiastically discussed.
According to My-Ngoc Nguyen, a certified instructor with the SANS Institute and CEO/Principal of Secured IT Solutions, Australia is taking the right approach to quantum technology since such technology advancement, like any other, needs to be viewed as an ecosystem in that it makes up various elements that are separate from each other; yet, dependent on one other.
“Quantum computing cannot be securely enabled without corresponding cyber security technologies. For example, a cyber security element like encryption for quantum computing,” Nguyen says. “Encryption of this kind must leverage the ‘horse power’ of quantum computing to generate random numbers and process the algorithm that would be needed for quantum cryptography.” He explains that these are the two different elements of a quantum ecosystem; yet, they are dependent on each other.
Nguyen adds: “In addition, there needs to be the talent to create the algorithm and implementation of quantum cryptography, yet alone quantum computing. Because one element of quantum technology cannot fully thrive without the other, building an ecosystem (to include people, process, and technology) to support it is necessary as well as growing the talent to include the focus of grooming young minds and the next generation.”
In order to continue the world-leading research, continued investment in skills and labour is needed so that new breakthroughs can be made. With this as well as the broader sector in mind, the Australian government has put in place initiatives to increase, for example, the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Hunt notes that “only one in four IT graduates and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates are women. Encouraging greater gender equity will help us realise our potential as a nation.” Government has allocated AU$112 million ($8.52 million) for science education.
Australia’s approach to a quantum ecosystem could hold valuable lessons for those in other parts of the world who want to pursue similar initiatives. Sharma believes that there are three key areas that other nations can learn from this country. These are the investment in science and technology education, the creation of focus areas such as the Data 61 cyber security hub in collaboration with international organisations such as Oxford University, along with wider collaboration between research institutions and innovative companies through models such as the Cooperative Research Centre programme.
Sharma sees Australia’s positioning in the field as crucial given the second quantum revolution which will introduce step change in a number of fields including: computing, cyber security, imaging and sensing. “A global race is developing to gain technical advantage in quantum technologies and thereby be positioned to leverage the large commercial opportunities that are emerging,” he says.
The UK, EU and China have already made large financial commitments to support a range of quantum technology development programs. “In Australia we are seeing increased momentum in the support for quantum technologies. Although our funding programs are typically smaller than other national/regional programs, focused support for sectors where Australia has a scientific and technical advantage – quantum computing and quantum cybersecurity – will position our research institutions and innovative companies to compete successfully on the global stage,” he says.
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