The EU wants to build its first quantum computer. That plan might not be ambitious enough

As part of its roadmap for digital transformation during the next 10 years, the EU has announced some new goals for quantum technologies. Will its plan be enough to compete against other nations?
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor
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EU Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager and commissioner Thierry Breton presented a new roadmap for the next 10 years - the '2030 digital compass'.  

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The European Union is determined to remain a competitive player in the quantum revolution that's expected in the next decade, and has unveiled plans to step up the development of quantum technologies within the bloc before 2030. 

EU Commission vice president Margrethe Vestager and commissioner Thierry Breton have presented a new roadmap for the next 10 years, the '2030 digital compass', which sets out targets for digital transformation across many different fields, in an effort to reassert the bloc's relevance in a range of technologies.

New objectives were set for quantum technologies, with the Commission targeting a first computer with quantum acceleration by 2025, paving the way for Europe to be "at the cutting edge" of quantum capabilities by 2030. 

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The ultimate goal, according to the roadmap, is for the EU to be able to develop quantum computers which are highly efficient, fully programmable and accessible from anywhere in Europe, to solve in hours what can currently be solved in hundreds of days, if not years.

Sophisticated quantum computing capabilities will be used to enable faster development of new drugs and cancer treatments, the Commission said; quantum computers will also solve highly complex optimisation problems for businesses, while helping with the design of energy-saving materials, or finding the cheapest combination of renewable sources to supply an energy grid. 

Although the target is to develop the EU's first quantum computer in the next five years, the complexity of the device has not been specified. Most analysts expect that a large-scale quantum computer capable of resolving real-world problems faster than a classical device is still at least a decade away. It's likely, therefore, that the Commission is aiming for a somewhat less sophisticated device. 

"It seems more likely that the quantum computer may be a noisy intermediate-scale type of quantum computer. In other words, not an all-singing-all-dancing fully fault-tolerant quantum computer, but a smaller, noisier quantum computer optimised to perform a specific computing task," Andrew Fearnside, senior associate specialising in quantum technologies at intellectual property firm Mewburn Ellis, tells ZDNet. 

"That seems far more achievable to me, and also more deliverable and, therefore, more likely to show quantum-sceptical technology investors and industry that quantum computing can truly improve their business." 

Alongside targets that are specific to quantum computing, the Commission also announced the goal to develop an ultra-secure quantum communication infrastructure that will span the whole of the EU. Quantum networks will significantly increase the security of communications and the storage of sensitive data assets, while also keeping critical communication infrastructure safe.

A long-standing interest

The EU's interest in quantum technologies is not new: the Commission launched a 10-year quantum flagship in 2018, which, with a €1 billion ($1.20 billion) budget, was described as one of the bloc's most ambitious research initiatives.  

Since then, individual member states have started their own quantum programs: Germany, in particular, has launched a €2 billion ($2.4 billion) funding program for the promotion of quantum technologies, far surpassing many other nations; but France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are all increasingly trying to establish themselves as hubs for quantum startups and research.

This has established Europe as a strong leader, with a high concentration of quantum-relevant talent and innovative quantum startups. However, the bloc's best efforts, in the context of a fast-moving quantum race, have not always been enough

"When it comes to operationalising quantum technology knowledge, Europe is falling behind the US and China to create IP, secure VC funding, and establish a mature startup and industry ecosystem," Ivan Ostojic, partner at research firm McKinsey, tells ZDNet. "Europe needs to find innovative ways to accelerate the development and scaling of breakthrough applications of quantum technologies to fully capture the economic potential." 

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Since the US signed in the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018, which came with a $1.2 billion budget, researchers and businesses across the Atlantic have flourished; the country is widely considered the biggest competitor in quantum, and has already established a mature ecosystem for the technology. 

China, for its part, has a long-established interest in quantum technologies. Earlier this week, in fact, the Chinese government revealed its economic roadmap for the next five years, which features aggressive objectives for quantum, including the development of a long-distance and high-speed quantum communications system, and building up computers that can support several hundred qubits. 

Although the EU Commission's new roadmap reflects a desire to establish the bloc as a leading global power in quantum technologies, Ostojic argues that without a well-defined strategy, it will be difficult for Europe to compete against other nations. 

"The question is if the strategy is limited to the creation of quantum computing assets, or if it includes a full ecosystem," he says. "There are critical areas to be considered across the entire value chain, from cooling technologies through quantum analytics and software to industry applications. Such a strategy should also include an answer on how to boost competitiveness from education through IP creation, company creation, funding, and industry partnerships." 

Alongside the objectives it sets for quantum technologies, the Commission's roadmap lays out some aggressive milestones for the bloc in the next decade – always with a vision to establish the EU as a leading player on the international scene.

SEE: BMW explores quantum computing to boost supply chain efficiencies

According to the document, the coronvirus crisis has highlighted Europe's "vulnerabilities" in the digital space, and the bloc's increased reliance on non-EU based technologies. The Commission aims, for example, to double the weight of European microprocessor production in the global market to reach a 20% share by 2030, up from the European semiconductor industry's current 10% share. 

Similarly, the Commission highlighted that much of the data produced in Europe is stored and processed outside of the bloc, which means the EU needs to strengthen its own cloud infrastructure and capacities. By 2030, the Commission hopes that 10,000 secure edge nodes will be deployed to allow data processing at the edge of the network.

Cloud technologies have been a sticking point in the EU for many years. To resist the dominance of US-based hyperscalers, such as Microsoft and AWS, the bloc has been working on a European cloud provider dubbed GAIA-X, which launched last year, but is showing little promise of success

The Commission's new roadmap suggests that the EU is still actively willing to claim the bloc's digital sovereignty in the face of increasing international competition. Commissioner Thierry Breton said: "In the post-pandemic world, this is how we will shape together a resilient and digitally sovereign Europe. This is Europe's Digital Decade." 

The next few months will see the targets laid out in the roadmap debated and discussed, before an official 'digital compass' is adopted at the end of 2021. Then, the Commission proposes carrying out an annual review of each member states' performance in meeting the targets to keep track of the bloc's progress.

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