Europe is throwing billions at quantum computers. Will it pay off?

Perhaps no one fully understands quantum computing yet, but one thing is clear: expectations are high. And where there are high expectations, there is money.

Both private and public funds for European quantum technologies have grown significantly in recent years. In 2021, private funding for quantum startups increased 2.5x compared to 2020 and 8x compared to 2019. Public funding has also increased, with the EU planning to invest $7.2 billion (€6.8 billion) in quantum computing projects by 2025.

Understandably, most of those billions have already, or will, go towards building a successful quantum computer – hardware is currently the biggest bottleneck in deploying this technology. However, let’s not forget that hardware alone is not enough. Quantum computers have no value without suitable software.

Nevertheless, quantum software wrongly receives little attention and thus also funding.

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A Quantum Chicken or Egg Challenge.

An obvious example of quantum software being undervalued in Europe is the money made available under the EU’s Quantum Technology Flagship program – the ambitious initiative to support Europe’s quantum innovations with a total of €1 billion in funding. The first phase of this initiative was completed with an investment of 152 million euros. Of this, only 4.6 million euros – that is only 2.9% – flowed into the research and development of quantum software.

For private investments, the situation is better, albeit similar. In 2021/2022, around 14.5% of capital investments in European quantum computing startups went into software solutions. And it seems that this trend will continue in 2023. Europe’s quantum computing startups that have made notable rounds this year – including Pasqal (€100m), Quantum Motion (£42m), Oxford Lonics (£30m) – are all hardware focused.

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Such a focus on hardware is unusual in the tech world — in everything else, software typically gets the largest share of investment due to easier scalability and greater profit opportunities. So why is it the other way around in quantum technology?

The reason for this anomaly is as follows: Both private investors and public funds see quantum computing as a hardware problem rather than a software problem. And in a way they are right – building successful quantum hardware is indeed the most burning challenge. Well, right now. But by and large, it’s only a third of the problem.

The three hurdles to jumping

There are three key problems in quantum computing that we still need to solve.

The first and most obvious is to build a quantum computer. Currently there are no quantum computers used for more than experiments, so the industry is mainly focused on it – from the global tech giants like Google and IBM to start-ups and academia.

The second challenge is to reduce errors in quantum computers so they can perform longer calculations. Better hardware reduces errors, but probably not enough. We need to find ways to correct bugs in quantum computing at the software level.

And the third problem is to find more computing methods for quantum computers, i.e. quantum software applications. Quantum computers will be useful for modeling physics and chemistry, but the extent of their usefulness for computing – from machine learning to planning and scheduling – is less clear. If we could find a few more methods to broaden the scope of the problems these computers can solve, it would make fundamental advances.

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Therefore, two of the three central problems of quantum computing are software-related. But how is it that this is not reflected in the distribution of funds at all? Given that we’re putting all (okay, most) available money into hardware, how can anyone expect to be able to use this new supercomputer without the “brains” that actually power it?

It may not be a software problem today, but it will be tomorrow

I think a reasonable allocation of funds would be 15-20% for quantum software and 80-85% for hardware.

Quite simply, hardware is the most expensive and complex part of this technology, so it makes sense to allocate the greatest amount of funding to speed development. And putting a fifth of the total funding into software would be enough to cover R&D work for new quantum computing applications.

While the distribution of private investment doesn’t look quite so hopeless, the EU’s public money is light years away from that target.

You see, quantum software takes years to develop. It took my colleagues and I between five and ten years to develop quantum walks as a method for solving problems. I expect a similar period for new problem-solving methods of comparable or greater importance.

What worries me is that if we continue to neglect quantum software, in just 10 years or so, quantum computing will become a software problem – and a life-or-death one. There will be quantum computers with applications primarily in physics and chemistry. In other areas, they are still used primarily for experimentation rather than actual problem solving.

In other words, Europe is now spending billions on specialized computing equipment that it may not know how to adapt to broader applications. And if we can’t offer software that expands the use of these devices, we risk losing interest in this technology and its advancement altogether. The range of applications will simply be too small for the world to care about.

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