‘How can we compete with Google?’: the battle to train quantum coders
There is a laboratory deep within University College London (UCL) that looks like a cross between a rebel base in Star Wars and a scene imagined by Jules Verne. Hidden within the miles of cables, blinking electronic equipment and screens is a gold-coloured contraption known as a dilution refrigerator. Its job is to chill the highly sensitive equipment needed to build a quantum computer to close to absolute zero, the coldest temperature in the known universe.
Standing around the refrigerator are students from Germany, Spain and China, who are studying to become members of an elite profession that has never existed before: quantum engineering. These scientists take the developments in quantum mechanics over the past century and turn them into revolutionary real-world applications in, for example, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, cryptography and medicine.
The problem is that there is now what analysts call a “quantum bottleneck”. Owing to the fast growth of the industry, not enough quantum engineers are being trained in the UK – or globally – to meet expected demand. This skills shortage has been identified as a crucial challenge and will, if unaddressed, threaten Britain’s position as one of the world’s top centres for quantum technologies.
“The lack of access to a pipeline of talent will pose an existential threat to our company, and others like it,” says James Palles-Dimmock, commercial director of London- and Oxford-based startup Quantum Motion. “You are not going to make a quantum computer with 1,000 average people – you need 10 to 100 incredibly good people, and that’ll be the case for everybody worldwide, so access to the best talent is going to define which companies succeed and which fail.”
This doesn’t just matter to niche companies; it affects everyone. “If the UK is to remain at the leading edge of the world economy then it has to compete with the leading technological and scientific developments,” warns Professor Paul Warburton, director of the CDT in Delivering Quantum Technologies. “This is the only way we can maintain our standard of living.”
This quantum bottleneck is only going to grow more acute. Data is scarce, but according to research by the Quantum Computing Report and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on one day in June 2016 there were just 35 vacancies worldwide for commercial quantum companies advertised. By December, that figure had leapt to 283.
In the UK, Quantum Motion estimates that the industry will need another 150–200 quantum engineers over the next 18 months. In contrast, Bristol University’s centre for doctoral training produces about 10 qualified engineers each year.
In the recent past, quantum engineers would have studied for their PhDs in small groups inside much larger physics departments. Now there are interdisciplinary centres for doctoral training at UCL and Bristol University, where graduates in such subjects as maths, engineering and computer science, as well as physics, work together. As many of the students come with limited experience of quantum technologies, the first year of their four-year course is a compulsory introduction to the subject.
“Rather than work with three or four people inside a large physics department it’s really great to be working with lots of people all on quantum, whether they are computer scientists or engineers. They have a high level of knowledge of the same problems, but a different way of thinking about them because of their different backgrounds,” says Bristol student Naomi Solomons.
While Solomons is fortunate to study on an interdisciplinary course, these are few and far between in the UK. “We are still overwhelmingly recruiting physicists,” says Paul Warburton. “We really need to massively increase the number of PhD students from outside the physics domain to really transform this sector.”
The second problem, according to Warburton, is competition with the US. “Anyone who graduates with a PhD in quantum technologies in this country is well sought after in the USA.” The risk of lucrative US companies poaching UK talent is considerable. “How can we compete with Google or D-Wave if it does get into an arms race?” says Palles-Dimmock. “They can chuck $300,000-$400,000 at people to make sure they have the engineers they want.”
There are parallels with the fast growth of AI. In 2015, Uber’s move to gut Carnegie Mellon University’s world-leading robotics lab of nearly all its staff (about 50 in total) to help it build autonomous cars showed what can happen when a shortage of engineers causes a bottleneck.
Worryingly, Doug Finke, managing editor at Quantum Computing Report, has spotted a similar pattern emerging in the quantum industry today. “The large expansion of quantum computing in the commercial space has encouraged a number of academics to leave academia and join a company, and this may create some shortages of professors to teach the next generation of students,” he says.
More needs to be done to significantly increase the flow of engineers. One way is through diversity: Bristol has just held its first women in quantum event with a view to increasing its number of female students above the current 20%.
Another option is to create different levels of quantum engineers. “A master’s degree or a four-year dedicated undergraduate degree could be the way to mass-produce engineers because industry players often don’t need a PhD-trained individual,” says Turner. “But I think you would be training more a kind of foot soldier than an industry leader.”
One potential roadblock could be growing threats to the free movement of ideas and people. “Nations seem to be starting to get a bit protective about what they’re doing,” says Prof John Morton, founding director of Quantum Motion. “[They] are often using concocted reasons of national security to justify retaining a commercial advantage for their own companies.”
Warburton says he has especially seen this in the US. This reinforces the need for the UK to train its own quantum engineers. “We can’t rely on getting our technology from other nations. We need to have our own quantum technology capability.”