Waterloo Region Record

As quantum tech nears commercialization, panel advises Ottawa to help shape market

Ottawa can help by buying the technology, using it, helping other sectors do the same


An expert panel on the adoption of quantum technologies says Ottawa should help create demand for the next generation of supercomputers but everyone involved should tone down the hype.

“It will be at least 10 years before the widespread adoption of quantum computers,” said Ray Laflamme, the University of Waterloo physicist who chaired the expert panel.

Quantum sensors and quantum cryptography will be commercialized before the powerful computers, said Laflamme in an interview prior to the release Thursday of an expert panel’s report on the responsible adoption of quantum technologies.

That’s good for this region thanks to deep expertise in both sensors and encryption among researchers at the University of Waterloo, the Institute for Quantum Computing, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and Quantum Valley Investments.

After playing a central role in advancing this Waterloo Region’s quantum ecosystem, Laflamme was tapped to chair the expert panel. Ottawa can help by buying quantum technology, using it, and helping other sectors do the same, said Laflamme.

“The government can be the first adopter of some of these technologies,” said Laflamme. “Show how these technologies work, how reliable they are and how useful they are.”

It can, for example, buy and deploy quantum-safe encryption for government servers with sensitive information.

“If people don’t do it for critical infrastructure for example, then they become vulnerable to hacking in the future,” said Laflamme. “So there could be regulatory interventions.”

Ottawa should also strike a new federal body that will plan how to migrate away from the encryption currently used for almost all online commerce — RSA — to quantum-safe encryption, said Laflamme.

Quantum computers will perform some tasks far faster than current computers, such as factoring large numbers, which lays waste to the encryption that safeguards online commerce today.

Again, regulations could be used, he added.

Some of the biggest names in tech, including IBM, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are trying to dominate the market and are buying Canadian startups. The federal Competition Act favours big companies, and Ottawa should look at changing it, said Laflamme.

Laflamme is among the world’s leading experts on quantum technologies. Early in is career, he studied under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. Now, the University of Waterloo physicist is a research chair in quantum information at the Institute for Quantum Computing and associate faculty at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. For years he was executive director at the institute.

There are lots of quantum computers in research labs around the world, but they are small and limited to experimental work.

Among quantum technologies, sensors are the closest to adoption and commercialization. They are potentially so sensitive they can see through walls, find valuable minerals far below ground and detect a single cancer cell in a human body.

Getting from the promise of the lab to commercial applications will take more research funds, and reliable supply chains for increasingly rare and expensive materials and components, including Rubidium-87, Calcium-43, Barium isotopes, Helium-3 and devices used for nanofabrication and microfabrication.

Quantum computers are not commercially available now, and won’t be for years. It is time to lower the hype around the technology, said Laflamme.

“If industry thinks we have some today that can solve all the problems they are worried about, they will be deceived and in the long term it will inhibit the adoption of the technology,” said Laflamme.

The expert panel was selected by the Council of Canadian Academies. The report was requested by the National Research Council and the federal department of Industry, Science and Economic Development.

‘‘The government can be the first adopter of some of these technologies.







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