Opportunities facilitated by the EU Quantum Flagship
The EU Quantum Flagship is supporting some important areas that could form the basis of further EU–US quantum collaboration. Both parties discussed priority research topics of mutual EU–US interest in Washington DC in September 2019, including enabling the development of quantum hardware, algorithms and control methods. In the longer term, they also discussed the possibility of a secure quantum transatlantic connection. As noted in the first section of this paper, this would entail considerable new research on additional quantum devices, such as repeaters. So far in discussions between the EU Quantum Flagship and White House agencies, such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, there has been some buy-in predominantly on the level of basic scientific research. US scientists have also signalled a potential interest in topics related to industry policy, such as standardization for quantum communications.
The Quantum Flagship Coordination and Support Action has been given a mandate by Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, to explore opportunities for collaboration limited to the scientific field. This would indicate a degree of tentativeness at the highest levels of the EU at this point as regards pursuing quantum collaboration with the US beyond fundamental scientific research. According to Calarco:
Future meetings on joint EU–US quantum cooperation are scheduled to take place. Here, quantum cooperation opportunities could be explored between scientists, social scientists, industry representatives and policymakers, with a view to creating openings for joint publications, intellectual property, patents and commercial opportunities.
Funding and security challenges around quantum collaboration
Interviews with CEOs of quantum technology start-ups highlighted a number of challenges confronting quantum research and development in Europe. One of these issues is that in the now global race for technology and talent, Europe risks losing out to other parts of the world that are investing heavily in these new opportunities. This new ‘brain drain’ may be exacerbated by US companies acquiring some European start-ups. While they acknowledged the value of programmes such as the EU Quantum Flagship for increasing funding for quantum research, some of the CEOs interviewed emphasized that there were challenges inherent in developing a quantum start-up in Europe, due to differences in available funding levels compared to the US. While there are likely to be stronger funding opportunities in the US, especially in terms of venture capital, additional EU funding could at least begin to mitigate this scenario.
However, there is also a growing sense within the scientific and technical community that international collaboration on quantum research and development is becoming increasingly challenging as quantum technology is seen more widely as not only commercially valuable, but also significant from a national security perspective. As outlined in the detailed technological explanations in the final section of this paper, many quantum technologies could have security implications. Quantum computing can make existing encryption standards easier to crack and are incentivizing the creation of stronger classical encryption standards; strenuous efforts are being made to develop new ‘post-quantum’ or ‘quantum-resistant’ algorithms. Quantum key exchange can be used to create stronger encryption standards that are less vulnerable to eavesdropping. Finally, quantum sensing may result in more sensitive radars and more accurate navigation and guidance systems for military vehicles and weapons that are not reliant on satellites. The perceived unique properties and potential civil and military uses of these technologies may be leading to an increased securitization of the field of quantum research, with less state funding available to finance international collaborations on quantum technologies due to national security concerns.
As a result, there are fears that the US might impose export controls on quantum technology, and there have been reports that the US government is already considering introducing similar restrictions, in particular on quantum computers, encryption and sensing, which may well further deter overseas researchers (including those from EU member states) from working in the US. Developing and broadening schemes for conference sponsorship for start-ups and hosting larger networking events could encourage cooperation once the COVID-19 pandemic declines – although costs can be prohibitive for start-ups to afford to attend these events, despite their value in developing vital business and research connections. In this context, organizers could hold a short, three-to-five-day, retreat and sponsor the attendance of 10 quantum researchers and start-up representatives from both the EU and the US. At such a retreat the researchers could present their research findings and proposals, receive coaching and participate in workshops on building research collaborations and business links between the EU and US.
It is to be expected that advanced countries and alliances will compete for peak position in the research and development of quantum technologies. Given the security implications in this area, it is natural that some wariness will exist regarding collaboration. However, common standards, transparency, the freedom of research-related information as well as the exchange of research personnel would allow the EU and US to maximize their competitiveness in the field of quantum information science, while strengthening their bilateral collaborative relationship.
Maintaining a competitive edge is important, given that funding of quantum research is increasing in other countries, for example, China. The securitization of quantum technologies, to the extent that deeper collaboration is inhibited, should be limited in order to enable competition. It is important to note, however, that there is some debate over the precise level of Chinese investment in its domestic research on quantum information science. According to Calarco:
To summarize, this paper notes that the most attainable prospects for quantum collaboration between the EU and US at present are in basic scientific research, with interest shown towards a policy of mutual industry standardization for quantum communications. There are ways to facilitate EU scientific and business involvement with the wider field of quantum technology that could be arranged more unilaterally – for example, increasing sponsorship of conferencing and networking events for academics and start-ups. This could be done on a small scale to begin with, with the sponsoring of retreats for a select, limited number of EU and US quantum researchers and industry representatives.
Of greater concern is the perception that the window for collaboration is at present limited, if not shrinking, due to an increased securitization of quantum technologies, which may close off future collaboration opportunities as sought by the EU. China is competing with the EU and US for technological successes and investment in quantum technologies. While it is understandable that security concerns can inhibit collaboration, overcoming these inhibitions will strengthen both the EU–US relationship and the quality of their quantum research. Taking a more pessimistic view, failure to collaborate risks leaving both the EU and US playing ‘catch-up’ with China’s quantum technology research.
As a starting point, in order to reduce the impact of this dynamic and facilitate additional trust and confidence-building towards further collaborations, the EU could pursue the available short-term opportunities for quantum collaboration in the areas of basic scientific research and aim to achieve a set of EU–US standards for quantum communications as a minimum. This would constitute a significant joint project that would also broaden the potential extent of EU–US quantum collaboration. Beyond that, the main priority is to keep as open as possible the opportunities for the exchange of information and personnel researching quantum technologies.