Can we afford not to participate in the quantum race?
National Research Council
Vice-President Emerging Technologies
Securing Canada’s quantum future is essential for S&T sovereignty and economic prosperity in the post-COVID-19 world.
- What if we could build a new type of computer that solves problems in mere seconds — problems that all the computers in the world today cannot solve?
- What if that computer could solve a problem in ten seconds with the power required to keep a few light bulbs lit instead of using enough to power a few city blocks?
- What if we could image the human body from within with spectacular resolution without fear of radiation damage?
- What if we could “see” through walls and underground by measuring small changes in gravity?
- What if we could design materials, atom by atom, with whatever properties we desire?
- What if we could have unbreakable encryption to protect our personal information?
Transforming these “what ifs” into reality is only possible through continued investment and advances in quantum science and technologies. The pioneers of quantum mechanics could never have thought that one day we could master quantum science to such a degree that it could help resolve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Saying that we are currently living in challenging times is an understatement as Canada and the world continue to face loss of lives and livelihoods due to COVID-19 and a pandemic-ravaged global economy. COVID-19 is compelling us to think strategically to ensure the prosperity and well-being of Canadians. We must urgently consider how to not only spur short-term economic recovery, but also to develop long-term resilience and growth. At the same time, there is an opportunity to take advantage of emerging technologies to build the economy of the future.
Predicting the future, however, even in the short term, is difficult. That’s why we need to place “bold bets” and think big. Let’s focus on the industries and technologies that are most likely to create innovation, growth and jobs and enhance Canada’s global competitiveness for tomorrow’s economy. These bets are most likely to pay off in areas where Canada is already a leader, and does not need to catch up to other countries.
The pandemic has also put the spotlight on the need for more self-reliance in infrastructure, key industries and emerging technologies. The shift to economic sovereignty, particularly for strategic emerging technologies such as quantum technologies, is driving the agenda of many nations.
Quantum technologies are a sound “bold bet” for Canada. Securing Canada’s quantum future and capitalizing on its early lead at the eve of the second quantum revolution is an important element of the new economy and path to future resilience. Quantum technologies are poised to revolutionize a myriad of industries and create new businesses with a potential global market size of over US$1 trillion by 2035, according to a recent McKinsey & Company report.
Quantum technologies are transformational, encompassing not only ultra-fast quantum computing, billed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “the next fundamental leap in technology”, but also high-precision sensors, secure communications, enhanced imaging, customized materials and drug design. These technologies have the potential to be the next enabling and foundational technological platforms; they straddle a number of industries such as health, defense and security, telecommunications, natural resources, environmental management, finance and pharmaceuticals.
In particular, quantum technologies will be transformational in healthcare, the environment and climate change, and cybersecurity. Here are but a few of the many promising applications.
In health, quantum sensors promise more accurate medical imaging, for example, by allowing MRI machines to examine at the molecular level. Quantum magnetometers use the magnetic properties of atoms to probe tissues, advancing the diagnosis of dementia, cancers and cardiac disease. Quantum computing could help accelerate the discovery of cures for a range of diseases and lead to completely simulated clinical trials that do not use humans or animals to test a drug or device. It could also accelerate the sequencing and analysis of the genome, enabling personalized medicine, and early detection and mitigation of diseases by analyzing genetic information, personal health information and vast amounts of health system data.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, much attention is focused on how emerging technologies such as quantum technologies can help us more effectively predict, prepare for and respond to future health crises. Quantum machine learning – the capability to handle massive quantities of data intelligently – is particularly promising for accelerating drug discovery and development. These technologies can work more quickly to identify potential candidates for drug development, create a vaccine, and determine how to slow disease transmission. They can constantly monitor data, and detect signs and identify patterns to avoid a potential pandemic. They can also target the global supply chain, and help accelerate responses to shortages or surpluses and position the right emergency personnel in the right place at the right time.
Quantum technologies have many potential applications that could produce new solutions in tackling climate change and safeguarding our environment. Early developments are expected in sensors, which promise significant improvements in sensitivity and precision measurement. Better sensors will allow more precise and robust monitoring and management of valuable natural resources, including our oceans and forests. Quantum sensors that will detect, for example, metal ores for rare earths to reduce our dependence on foreign sources. Advances in quantum computing could generate simulations of large complex molecules that reveal cheaper and more efficient catalysts for carbon capture, energy storage and transmission, and fertilizers. They could also enable more precise climate change modelling.
As quantum computing technology continues to rapidly progress, the need to enhance Canada’s cybersecurity and build quantum-safe systems to secure Canadian infrastructure and industries is becoming increasingly critical. New quantum-enabled technologies, such as quantum key distribution and quantum random number generation, can provide a new security foundation for the digital infrastructure of tomorrow’s economy. Developing our own quantum technology capacity means that Canada will not be dependent, in 10 years’ time, on foreign countries’ technology to protect our personal information, banking systems, electricity grids, smart cities infrastructure and national security. Enhancing Canada’s cybersecurity will help protect our economic prosperity in the quantum era.
A strong argument for further investing in quantum technologies is that Canada is currently a global leader in key areas of quantum research and development, and we have a robust ecosystem in place. Canada’s overall investment over the past decade is estimated at over $1 billion. We have globally recognized research excellence hubs that attract top talent and ideas to Canada. In the areas surrounding these centres, research is translated into real-world applications in some of the first companies in the world based on quantum technologies.
On a relative scale, Canada’s rate of quantum entrepreneurial activity is much higher than in other jurisdictions. We have the biggest investments in quantum companies in the world on a per capita basis, and our firms and institutions hold the second highest number of patents in the world, after the U.S. Canada ranks sixth globally in quantum technology publications and fifth in the number of quantum technology applications. B.C.-based D-Wave has the most applications in the world.
Many nations are making strategic investments in quantum technologies, placing Canada’s global leadership and competitiveness at risk. The U.S., U.K., EU, Germany, China, Australia and others are all implementing and allocating resources to quantum strategies. A few countries have specifically included quantum technologies in their post-pandemic economic recovery plans. Germany has allocated 2 billion of its June 2020 130-billion-euro economic stimulus plan to quantum technologies and investment in two quantum computers.
In August, the U.S. announced investment in “industries of the future”, including artificial intelligence and quantum information science (QIS), investing up to $625 million over five years in five QIS centres, with an additional $300 million from industry and academia. The stated aim is to create “transformative benefits for the American people in healthcare, communications, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, security, and beyond.”
Quantum science and technology has already been identified as an area of national interest from both an economic and security perspective. Canada’s quantum ecosystem, including universities, research institutes and quantum-based companies, has come together with common goals and a shared vision for the development of a national quantum strategy for the country’s continued leadership in quantum science and technologies.
As we rebuild Canada’s economy, there is an opportunity to capitalize on this national asset to help secure our S&T sovereignty and create new opportunities for businesses. This will be essential to sustain our economic prosperity in the quantum era. In times of hardship and uncertainty, we must dare to have big ideas and act on a bold vision for Canada’s economy of the future. Doing so gets us that much closer to making those earlier “what ifs” a reality for the benefit of all Canadians.