Davos Agenda

The world is heading for a 'quantum divide': here's why it matters

Quantum technology will exponentially accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But more than 150 countries do not yet have a quantum strategy.

Quantum technology will exponentially accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But more than 150 countries do not yet have a quantum strategy. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jack Hidary
Chief Executive Officer, SandboxAQ
Arunima Sarkar
Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The impact of quantum technology will be far-reaching, in fields ranging from cybersecurity to drug development.
  • Currently, 17 countries have invested in a national program of quantum technology research and development, while more than 150 have not.
  • Leaders in quantum technology must commit to inclusivity in quantum education, in order to close the divide.

Together with continuing advances in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (IOT) and nanotechnology, quantum technology will exponentially accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For those who lead in this field, the impact will be far-reaching and significant, stimulating countries’ industrial bases, creating jobs, and providing economic and national security benefits. This compounding effect will result from revolutionary advances in three key areas of quantum technology.

1. Cyber security

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a fault-tolerant quantum computer could be capable of breaking current encryption used for Public Key Cryptography as soon as 2030. This will put everything from individuals’ personal information to governments’ military and intelligence secrets at risk. This threat is already an active one, however, because of Store Now, Decrypt Later attacks, in which encrypted data is being harvested today so that it can be decrypted when a quantum computer is available.

2. Quantum simulation and optimization

By modelling complex molecular processes, quantum simulation will enable breakthroughs in pharmacology (life-saving drug development) and materials science (chemicals essential to industry, battery chemistry, and more). Breakthroughs in quantum optimization could also be impactful to the financial sector (risk-analysis and financial portfolio optimization).

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3. Quantum sensing

Quantum sensors possess extraordinarily fine-tuned capabilities. When these sensors are coupled with artificial intelligence that can sort through the massive amounts of data they generate, exciting new applications can be created. These include enhanced medical imaging technology, natural resource exploration, and global navigation without GPS satellites.

Public and private financing for quantum technologies

Each of these areas will create countless breakthroughs for those countries able to invest in quantum technology. While commercial quantum computers are still some years away, public and private entities around the world are already investing heavily in the race for a quantum advantage. ​​As of January 2021, 17 countries have a national initiative or strategy to support quantum technology research and development; 3 have strategies under development while 12 other countries have significant government-funded or -endorsed initiatives. But more than 150 countries do not yet have a quantum strategy.

Planned global public spend in 2022 on developing quantum technology is estimated to exceed $30 billion. Davos 2023
Planned global public spend in 2022 on developing quantum technology is estimated to exceed $30 billion. Image: World Economic Forum

The planned global public spend in 2022 on developing quantum technology is estimated to exceed $30 billion, with China alone accounting for roughly half of that total and the European Union making up almost another quarter. The remaining quarter is distributed primarily among nine countries, led by the US, Canada, Japan and the UK. In terms of private investment, the US and EU dominate, with 59 and 53 quantum computing startups respectively. That number stands in stark contrast to just two startups in all of South America and none in Africa.

Disparities in access to existing technologies have already created a digital divide: 2.9 billion people are still offline and do not benefit from the digital economy. Unequal access to quantum technology has negative geopolitical implications, putting those countries whose quantum programs are less developed in danger of falling further behind.

Closing the divide

To avoid a quantum divide developing further, countries with more developed quantum programs must make a commitment to inclusivity in quantum education.

Today’s leaders in quantum technology have all developed holistic quantum ecosystems, marshaling the resources necessary to stay ahead of the quantum curve. The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, for instance, represents a more than £1 billion investment by the United Kingdom to foster collaboration between industry, academia, and government. In Canada, the Institute for Quantum Computing at the public University of Waterloo has successfully spun out 17 quantum startups with its commitment to developing research avenues for the marketplace.

Israel, a relatively small country with a thriving quantum ecosystem, proves the efficacy of this model even for those countries whose investments are not on the scale of those of larger countries. One of Israel’s leading institutes of technology, The Technion, offers world-class teaching and research opportunities in Quantum Science and Technology (QST) and has achieved a breakthrough with its quantum microscope. This institution along with others in Israel train highly skilled individuals for the tech and defense sectors, and Israel funds quantum innovation through both venture capital and public funds – all of which has worked together to build Israel’s reputation as “the Start-Up Nation” and made the country a quantum leader.

Singapore is another example of a holistic quantum ecosystem allowing a smaller country to compete globally. Its Quantum Engineering Programme (QEP) has launched three national platforms to coordinate research activities and foster public-private collaborations. Currently, QEP is working with over a dozen public and private partners, including AWS, to build a quantum-safe network for critical infrastructure. One of those partners, Keysight, for example, allows QEP researchers to utilize its advanced measuring equipment. That value flows both ways: SGInnovate, a government-owned investment platform, funds deep tech startups to spur innovation.

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Both Israel and Singapore are also models for international cooperation. Israel has been awarded a number of quantum research grants by the European Research Council, of which it is an associate member. Meanwhile, Singapore and the US have established the US-Singapore Cyber Dialogue.

Before any of the benefits of quantum technologies can be realized, addressing the quantum threat to cybersecurity should be a first step to protect economic interests, critical infrastructure, and national security. From there, countries can focus on one or a few key specializations aligned to their strategic priorities that will place them in the overall quantum value chain.

The National Quantum Blueprint initiative, guided by the Quantum Computing Governance Principles of the Forum, will provide a roadmap to build a quantum ecosystem, driving positive outcomes for society. By working together with national government and regional economic associations, we aim to close the divide before the quantum industry takes off even further.

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