Why Australia shines as a centre for quantum computing

The country is home to one of the highest concentrations of quantum research groups in the world, now joined by the Sydney Quantum Academy.

Quantum computing  >  A quantum processor radiates power.
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Australia’s academic model has positioned the country favourably against others for investment in quantum computing from large vendors such as Microsoft and Intel.

David Reilly, a director of Microsoft Quantum-Sydney and professor of physics at the University of Sydney, said that there is no other destination that offers the key ingredients for a strong quantum computing nation. Sydney is already home to one of the highest concentrations of quantum research groups in the world. He spoke at the much anticipated official launch of the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA) this week.

SQA is a collaboration among the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, and the University of Technology Sydney; it is backed by government investment. Its mission is to build Australia’s quantum ecosystem through partnerships among academia, industry, and government.

The academy has funded 80 students and fellows across the four universities in 2020. Its external advisory board includes Bill Bartee, managing partner at Main Sequence Ventures; David Bird, group leader quantum technologies for the Australian government; Hugh Durrant-Whyte, chief scientist and engineer for the New South Wales government; Cathy Foley, chief scientist at CSIRO and soon to be Australia’s chief scientist; Jay Gambetta, an IBM fellow and vice-president for quantum computing at IBM; Hartmut Neven, head of quantum computing at Google; Jeremy O’Brien, chief executive officer at PsiQuantum; Simone Severini, director of quantum computing at Amazon Web Services; Vikram Sharma, CEO at Quintessence Labs; and Krysta Svore, general manager of quantum software at Microsoft.

Quantum science areas where Australia is strong

Gavin Brennen, director of the Macquarie Centre for Quantum Engineering at Macquarie University, said:

What I think is really unique about what we have here [in Sydney] is a wide breadth of expertise, everything from the hardware for building quantum computers, using things like quantum dots or majorana fermions or silicon, and also the software to run on them,” Brennen said. “Also, the pure theory to think about the future challenges to making these devices work, which they call error correction. You can take people from lots of different expertise from computer science, engineering, even mathematics, and certainly physics, and they’ll find really exciting projects to work on and the expertise to work with here.

Brennan noted that Australia has a long history of photonics. Quantum photonics is the application of light in energy, information transport and processing, communications, propagation, and detection or sensing where the field may be classical or quantum but the physical device is nearly always governed by quantum mechanics.

Brennan also said that one of the main areas in Australia is quantum optics—where the electromagnetic field is quantized—for which some of the leading textbooks in the field came from Australia in the 1980s and 1990s.

CSIRO’s Foley said that quantum simulation is showing that quantum computers can solve problems so far deemed unsolvable in any other way. She also talked about designing catalysts, which is the basis for a set of manufacturing processes: “The chance of actually using a quantum computer to design a new material, which you wouldn’t have been able to do in any other way, and then work with people who actually turn that design into a reality, suddenly opens up the door for a whole lot of industry shifting, which is absolutely needed if we want to have the sustainable future that we’re all looking to have.”

Michael Biercuk, a professor of quantum physics and quantum technology at the University of Sydney and founding CEO of Q-Ctrl, said there is much more to quantum than just quantum computing, such as magnetometry, gravimetry detecting, gravitational signatures that can be used to detect underground water, and atomic-based navigation.

Opportunities to work in quantum computing

There are opportunities for a diverse range of professionals in the quantum industry. Biercuk said that the first employees he hired were a software engineer and a head of design, and now he also employs product engineers, product marketers, and developers.

Foley complemented that with an example of how vocational courses can evolve to fit in other areas in an existing course. She said there are lots of air conditioning engineers in Australia, for example, and that there is an opportunity to develop TAFE courses further so there are technicians who can go beyond air conditioners all the way down to millikelvin temperatures and so be able to do the quantum work that goes with it.

There are also opportunities for existing businesses to work in the quantum space such as companies that do web development. “If you build electronics that go into avionics systems or into vehicle control systems, those electronics and that skill set can be repurposed for the developments we see in the quantum industry. And I think this is a great way to diversify the economy and build resilience,” Biercuk said.

There is an opportunity in Australia for startups to grow, as 97% of companies in the country are small and medium enterprises and 70% of those employ fewer than 20 people.

But there are constraints, Biercuk said, such as that there are some universities in Australia that do not allow its academics to have more than 1% stake in any business, which prevents some specialists in various fields to launch new businesses or get any investment, which is the basis for startups.

There is not a big enterprise market in Australia, and Biercuk said it is key for businesses to understand that the opportunity lies with government agencies. There is work to be done to build better interaction with defence, intelligence, the educational sector, and various parts of government that can streamline the pathway for companies to succeed.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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