The Gartner Publicity Cycle it is a graphical representation of the five phases that new technology typically goes through before its true value is realized and it finds a stable market niche.
After the first “tech trigger”, the hype quickly drives the “visibility” curve up to the “peak of inflated expectations”. Then early failures give rise to negative press, plunging it into the “watering hole of disappointment.” Slowly, however, new applications emerge and the curve climbs along the “enlightenment slope” before the mature technology settles into the “productivity plateau.”
However, not all technologies in the foothills of the first peak reach that final plateau. Their long-term fate is often sealed by strategic decisions made early on.
Observers of quantum technologies can be forgiven for thinking that they are now at the peak of inflated expectations. Hardly a day goes by without a tech giant, enthusiastic startup, or ambitious academic researcher boasting of some breakthrough that suggests conventional quantum computing is just around the corner. However, Gartner, the American information technology research and advisory company that came up with the curve, believes it is only the beginning. In its 2021 reportconsidered that quantum machine learning remains a technological trigger: a promising technology to watch and invest in. This means we are in for another decade, at least, of hype.
With the trigger of technology, of course, comes money. We’re seeing that, too, and that’s a good thing. Quantum computing is a formidable challenge that requires dedication, long-term vision and sustained investment. But because we are only at the beginning of the journey, we must get it right if we are to secure the path forward.
I am writing this at a very happy time for my research field of silicon-based quantum computing. For the first time, three independent research groups, including my own, have demonstrated the ability to perform universal quantum operations on silicon with better than 99 percent fidelity, which means less than one error every 100 operations.
This is a key threshold at which errors can be detected and corrected faster than they occur, allowing the computer to achieve the correct result. These results were published this week in Three back to back documents in Nature. It is extremely rare that three very similar articles are published in Nature the same day, but it is not a coincidence and perhaps the most inspiring side of the story.
The three research groups – in UNSW Sydney, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Riken in Japan, have a long history of collaboration and open scientific exchange. This is a key reason why we have achieved this level of performance in our silicon quantum processors.
Lieven Vandersypen, team leader from Delft, spent a gap year at UNSW in 2016 and met several members of our team. One, Giordano Scappucci, now leads the materials development team in Delft. There, he produced a special cell made of silicon and silicon-germanium alloy, which was key to the performance of his quantum processor. The material was shared with Seigo Tarucha’s group at Riken and used for his recent experiments.
The silicon material that we use at UNSW was provided to us by another Japanese colleague, Kohei Itoh. Among my team, one of the main authors, Mateusz Mądzik, now works in Delft, while the other, Serwan Asaad, graduated from Delft.
Alongside this Australia-Netherlands-Japan triangle was another key player: Sandia National Laboratories in the US. There, the team led by Robin Blume-Kohout developed a new method to certify the performance of our quantum processor. That method also became openly accessible and was also adopted by the Delft group.
There are important lessons to be drawn from this story, with long-term repercussions.
First, now that private investors are getting involved in quantum technologies, we must be careful not to sacrifice the free flow of ideas, people, and materials for the needs of commercial confidentiality. Money is no substitute for good ideas, especially in a revolutionary field like quantum technology. Ideas only thrive on openness. In fact, some of the most successful quantum companies are explicitly transnational and collaborative, actively forming alliances with other companies in the global quantum ecosystem, as well as engaging deeply with academia.
Second, governments must continue to support basic research and take a long-term view of the return on investment.
I vividly remember a meeting where a US government delegate explained to me that since the Manhattan Project, US government agencies have had a very clear idea of where their technological advantage comes from. They know that the iPhone was created in the US not only because of the entrepreneurial spirit of Steve Jobs, but because decades of government-funded, curiosity-driven research laid the groundwork for developing the device’s innovative components.
Unfortunately, not all governments have access to such well-documented stories and prefer to prioritize short-term translational research. This is hardly ever worth it in the long run.
Lastly, education and training are crucial for success. The manpower required to build the quantum technology ecosystem is scarce. Qualified graduates and experienced quantum engineers can travel the world looking for attractive jobs, as many of our teammates have done.
The most successful quantum companies will be those based in countries that train the local quantum workforce and attract the global one. Quantum Valley doesn’t necessarily have to be in Northern California. But anyone else with designs needs to act boldly and quickly, while encouraging the creation and circulation of brilliant new ideas.
Andrea Morello is Scientia Professor of Quantum Engineering at UNSW Sydney.