6G smartphones, unhackable communications, and cameras that can see through the ground: the realities of a quantum revolution

A UK strategy for stimulating growth in quantum technologies has now been published. It outlines the areas where advances in quantum are expected to have the greatest impact on our daily lives in the future, and highlights the billion-pound potential for the UK as a world leader in the field.

The strategy was developed by the Quantum Technologies Strategic Advisory Board, which oversees the newly established £270m UK National Quantum Technology Programme, and is designed to guide new quantum work and investments over the next 20 years to deliver a profitable, growing and sustainable quantum industry in the UK.

The UK is a world-leader in quantum research and recent advances, together with the UK’s novel engineering and manufacturing capability, mean that the nation is poised to bring the next generation of quantum technologies out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. The strategy highlights that the biggest opportunities for the UK to exploit its advantage in quantum are in the finance, defence, aerospace and telecommunications sectors, and the $2.5 trillion world oil and gas industry.

In addition to outlining the focus of the new National Quantum Technology Programme, the strategy outlines five core strands of further action and makes specific recommendations to secure the UK’s leading position in exploiting quantum advances.

While quantum is often perceived as mysterious and its applications a distant reality, today’s world is in fact already dominated by the impact of breakthroughs in quantum science. For example, quantum science has led to the electronics that control telecommunications, computing, electronic systems and digital cameras.

In daily life, further advances in quantum could enable faster 5G or even 6G communications for mobile devices. Improved quantum sensor and imaging technologies are already being used to develop tools capable of seeing through the ground, enabling improved flood prediction, sinkhole detection, and faster and more efficient construction projects through the quicker identification of underground obstructions before starting work. These technologies are also being developed for use in the medical field, such as providing unprecedented views into the brain for dementia research.

Quantum atomic clocks will be the most accurate time-keepers in the world, providing enormous benefit for the countless industries which rely on timing, including high-frequency financial trading, future telecoms networks and navigation.

Quantum communications are in development to transform the security of data and transactions across multiple sectors and users, ranging from government and industry to commerce and consumers.

While some of these technologies are likely to be on the market within as little as five years, the strategy suggests that quantum technologies have the potential to improve imaging and computing in ways that cannot yet be predicted. Much as the invention of the semiconductor enabled a revolution in electronics resulting in a global industry valued at $335.8bn, the market for quantum products and technology has the potential to be a future £1bn+ industry.

The strategy identifies five core strands of action to help the UK capitalise on the quantum opportunity:

1. Enabling a strong foundation of capability in the UK – Recommendations are focused on how the UK programme should take advantage of our existing quantum technologies capabilities, to create a future industry which is deep rooted in the UK, providing wealth and jobs to the UK economy. The National Quantum Technologies Programme has established a £120m national network of quantum technology hubs, involving 17 universities and over 50 partner organisations, collectively contributing a further £60m of support. The strategy further recommends investment in a 10-year programme of support for academia, industry and other partners to co-accelerate the growth of the UK quantum technologies ecosystem.

2. Stimulating applications and market opportunity in the UK – The strategy identifies a large number of potential markets and applications for quantum technologies, which have the potential to significantly change our lives, ranging from cameras which can see through the ground, to clocks which enable 6G data communication. To deliver commercial devices in these areas requires UK businesses to invest in these new, high risk, high reward technologies. The recommendations in this section are to incentivise this private investment from companies by:

·         providing public support for the building of demonstrators, giving investors and potential customers confidence to move to the next stage of development

·         providing a technology road-map, and other means to encourage effective communication and collaboration, and

·         helping to draw in eventual customers of the technology.

The strategy also highlights that in order to have practical applications, new quantum technologies will have to be integrated into systems. An immediate challenge is therefore to reach a point where the use of quantum devices does not require specialist knowledge or training and where the inherent ‘strangeness’ of quantum will be hidden from both systems designers and day-to-day users. 

3. Growing a skilled UK workforce – A quantum technologies industry will produce new high-skilled jobs in areas such as manufacturing, science and development, as well as in the growing services industry which will maintain these devices as the global industry develops. The National Quantum Technologies Programme partners will work with skills providers provide these skills, encouraging rapid learning and movement of skilled people and promote opportunities for co-working and knowledge exchange, and the strategy further recommends investment and support for the free flow of people, innovation and ideas between academic, industrial and government organisations.

4. Creating the right social and regulatory context – Realising the societal and economic opportunities requires early and broad engagement with UK society. Proactively engaging with a wide range of stakeholders at an early stage will enable innovation to be driven forward responsibly, ensure the commercial viability of quantum technologies, and facilitate the creation of an effective regulatory and standards regime. The strategy states the UK has an opportunity to produce the first comprehensive public perspective on quantum technology and to develop a bespoke framework and effective governance structure to guide its development.

5. Maximising UK benefit through international engagement – Others such as USA, Australia, China, Canada, Singapore and several European countries are establishing or have already established centres of excellence in quantum technologies, but there is an opportunity for the UK to be the global leader and a ‘go-to’ place for developing the commercial application of quantum technologies.  The strategy warns that a balance must be struck between harnessing the benefits of international collaboration and supporting UK academics and industry to deliver the maximum value from technology to the UK.

David Delpy, chair of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme Strategic Advisory Board said: “This investment into Quantum Technologies represents the biggest single investment in a disruptive technology of the modern era. The UK has long been recognised as a world leader in quantum research, and we now have a real chance to build a solid and successful industrial base around that excellence in fundamental science and engineering. A concerted effort will allow for the creation of an industry that will deliver clear benefits back to the UK.”

Paul Mason, deputy director research and chief scientific advisor, said: “The national quantum technologies strategy demonstrates the great potential the sector has to become a major global industry, vital to the UK economy. This strategy will help guide our investments in this area, supporting companies to work alongside academics to deliver a new breed of commercial devices that harness the awesome power of quantum physics, with significant and far reaching impact to UK business and the general public.”

Professor Philip Nelson, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), said: “Quantum science and technologies are going to change many, many aspects of the way we live, how we communicate and we do business. This strategy is really important in ensuring the UK stays in vanguard of this field. EPSRC is working with all four of the Quantum Technologies Hubs involved in the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme to ensure the country makes the most of its assets and talents.”  

Bob Cockshott, Quantum Lead at the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), said: “From finance and telecommunications to energy, aerospace and transport, new quantum technologies will have a significant impact on many of the world’s biggest markets and may substantially improve on what is possible with current technology, such as enabling sub-surface imaging of buried assets and navigation without GPS. By pursuing the five action points of the strategy, we can capture the scientific excellence of UK quantum research and ensure British businesses are the first to benefit from it. ”

Trevor Cross, chair of the Special Interest Group in Quantum Technologies and group chief technology officer at e2v, said: “Quantum technologies stand to offer industry truly revolutionary capabilities in key areas. In order to help transform world-leading research into marketable innovation, the Quantum Technology Programme has a variety of support mechanisms in place to assist engaged businesses, offering companies funding, facilities, and access to world-leading researchers through the national network of Hubs. By capitalising on this opportunity, businesses stand to benefit from the billion pound market that quantum technologies promise.”


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