Spurring adoption of quantum technologies is key to Canada competing globally in quantum
December 6, 2023
Canada will need new policies, programs and incentives to drive adoption of quantum technologies and leverage its quantum research strengths to become a global competitor, according to a new report by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).
The National Quantum Strategy, released earlier this year, largely focuses on supply-side initiatives, with less support for stimulating technology diffusion and adoption, the panel said.
“To date, the majority of government support in Canada has focused on development and production; funding programs tend to support fundamental research and the creation of SMEs and start-ups, many of which have either not brought products to market or left Canada.”
Adoption of quantum technologies in Canada will require programs designed to stimulate demand – including government procurement, pro-competition policies and building a quantum-ready workforce, the report said.
“Quantum technologies are coming. It is early in their development but they are coming and it’s an incredible opportunity for Canada,” Dr. Raymond Laflamme, PhD (photo at left), who chaired the CCA’s expert panel, told Research Money. A physics professor at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, he also co-chairs Canada’s National Quantum Strategy.
Canada already punches above its weight in quantum, having considerable expertise and some infrastructure for developing quantum technologies, he said. “But the competition around the world is pretty stiff.”
To become a global leader, government, industry and academia need to work together to make quantum technologies a reality, Laflamme said.
CCA produced the independent, peer-reviewed assessment report at the request of the National Research Council of Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, and three other supporting federal departments.
The expert panel, which focused on the responsible adoption of quantum technologies, noted that there’s a lot of hype globally about quantum, even though the scientific consensus is that a practical, reliable quantum computer is still at least 10 years away.
“While hype is not inherently bad (e.g., it can help drive research and development), a failure of quantum technologies to deliver on exaggerated or sensationalist promises could undermine public trust in innovation, reduce research funding, and deter end-users from adopting solutions that can be beneficial for their organizations,” the panel said.
The panel’s report looked at quantum computing, sensing and communications, three categories of quantum technology at varying levels of maturity.
While these technologies may strengthen digital infrastructure, improve data security and optimize processes across a range of economic sectors, they also pose significant risks such as misuse by malicious actors, according to the report.
“Risks associated with quantum technologies span ethical, legal, social, and policy realms; without sufficient consideration, they may compromise public trust in quantum technologies, limit research funding, and stifle innovation,” the panel said.
When it comes to adoption of quantum technologies, the panel found that government can play a role in three main areas, including procuring these technologies from Canadian companies.
However, government not only needs to fund procurement but help entrepreneurs and startups develop the technologies and at the same time provide a first user who could use them, Laflamme said.
“With very high technology, quite often industry is scared of being the first user,” so initial government procurement of quantum technologies would give industry the confidence to adopt the technologies, he said.
Toronto-based quantum computer developer Xanadu Quantum Technologies has called on Ottawa to support a private-public partnership to establish a Canada Quantum Data Centre to support the commercialization of Canada’s quantum intellectual property and boost training in quantum computing research, operations and maintenance.
Vancouver-based D-Wave Systems Inc. has recommended that the federal government create a Canadian “quantum sandbox” to develop and test near-term quantum applications, as part of the National Quantum Strategy.
Urgent need to upgrade Canada’s sensitive computer networks
One of the biggest threats of a quantum computer is that it would be able to break existing methods of encrypting secret and highly sensitive information.
Some companies in Canada and internationally have already developed technologies – now being standardized – that are resistant to being hacked by a quantum computer, Laflamme said.
Other countries have started incorporating these technologies, including the U.S. which is developing a plan to migrate its computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.
There’s an urgent need for governments and industry in Canada to do the same thing, by being the first customer for Canadian companies with quantum-resistant technologies, Laflamme said. “Government needs to make the network secure. They need to do it now.”
Procurement could start, for example, with the federal Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Public Safety Canada, Laflamme suggested.
Data collected and stored today could still be hacked by quantum computers in the future, according to the CCA’s report. “The panel stresses that the failure to adopt quantum-resistant cryptography by governments and industries could be devastating.”
To spur adoption of quantum technologies, government also can partner with industry and academia to create national and sector- and technology-specific “roadmaps” for quantum, Laflamme said. These roadmaps would inform Canadians about what the state-of-the-art is in quantum technologies, when to expect commercialization of quantum sensors or quantum computers, and what the potential benefits and risks are.
Creating structures that bring government, industry and academia together is crucial, not only to encourage technology adoption but to develop new regulations and standards for quantum technologies, Laflamme said.
The third vital role government can play, in collaboration with industry and post-secondary institutions and non-profits that support training, is to help ensure Canada has enough of a skilled workforce to develop and apply quantum technologies, he said.
Xanadu, for example, has called for a nationally coordinated funded program for quantum computing software education at Canadian universities, including work-integrated learning opportunities.
However, the CCA panel pointed out that there’s a lack of reproducible, empirical data on: the demographics of highly qualified personnel (HQP) in Canada; the demand for HQP in industry including areas of expertise and level of training desired; and technology transfer strategies and the importance of certain metrics, such as patents.
The panel also noted that foreign-trained workers and international students face several immigration obstacles, including a lack of National Occupational Classification codes for quantum-based occupations, high tuition fees, immigration processing backlogs, and onerous study and work permit fees.
“As an alternative, flexible and agile immigration programs, similar to ones that fuelled the development of the telecommunications sector in the 1990s, could give Canada a leg up when competing for the international talent necessary to stimulate technology adoption and shape quantum innovation on a global level,” the panel said.
Quantum technologies make more economic sense in certain sectors
Some sectors often cited as early adopters of quantum technologies, such as pharmaceuticals and chemistry, make relatively small contributions to Canada’s GDP, according to the CCA report.
“To better realize the economic potential of quantum technologies, diffusion and adoption strategies could target the applications of quantum in sectors of particular economic importance to Canada, such as natural resources and healthcare,” the expert panel said.
Laflamme said his opinion as a scientist – and not as chair of the CCA’s expert panel – is that the most obvious early adopter of quantum technologies is the scientific research community which is already working on quantum technologies.
Also, to protect critical infrastructure, “there’s definitely a piece [in quantum technology deployment] for defense, intelligence, national security and public safety,” he said.
Other areas where it makes sense economically and from a security standpoint to deploy quantum technologies are in the internet-connected world of e-commerce, and in chemistry and materials science for drug discovery and developing new materials, Laflamme said.
Promising areas where quantum is just starting to have an impact and where technology adoption could be targeted include health care (quantum sensors to detect cancer, for example), mining, oil and gas, agriculture, transportation and logistics, he said. “I think these are places where Canada could put an emphasis.”
The panel’s report flagged that there are regional inequities and disparities when it comes to developing and deploying quantum technologies. Most quantum R&D is happening in large cities in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, because the effort is expensive and requires substantial infrastructure.
Laflamme said the federal government, in implementing the $360-million National Quantum Strategy, needs to consider how to address regional inequities, perhaps through the deployment of quantum sensors – which are closer to commercialization than quantum computers.
For example, communities in the Atlantic region could use quantum sensors in the fishing industry, for detecting fish and monitoring fish populations. Sensors for detecting and measuring methane emissions from permafrost could be locally deployed and maintained in Canada’s Northern communities.
Canadian businesses face obstacles in adopting quantum technologies
The panel noted that the application and enforcement of Canada’s competition and intellectual property laws “may enable major market players to achieve and maintain their dominance in the quantum sector, creating obstacles for Canadian SMEs willing to adopt quantum technologies.”
Multinationals are developing and patenting quantum technologies, and Canada needs to find a way to work with these major players to ensure Canadians benefit, rather than innovative domestic companies – along with their revenues, IP and talent – migrating to other countries, Laflamme said.
Canada’s role might be to build parts of quantum systems and corner niche markets so the country becomes a critical piece in the global quantum supply chain, he said.
Also, Canada has some resources necessary for making quantum computers, such as helium-3 used to manufacture cryogenic devices, including dilution refrigerators used to cool quantum computer processors. Canada could perhaps trade internationally in some of its quantum resources to obtain other types of quantum materials, such as certain types of atoms used in quantum sensors, Laflamme suggested.
“International cooperation is instrumental in securing the supply chain for the production of quantum technologies in Canada,” the panel’s report said.
When it comes to Canada’s National Quantum Strategy, the panel said the strategy “does not pay sufficient attention to ethical, legal, social and policy implications related to the adoption of quantum technologies.”
“At some point, people will think about using quantum for dual purposes or nefarious reasons,” Laflamme said. Other countries are taking action on ways to prevent this from happening and Canada needs to do the same, he added. “Canada should not be a laggard on this.”
Government and industry need to look at new regulations, reforms to data and privacy law, limiting import-export of certain quantum materials (similar to nuclear materials), codes of conduct, and public engagement and education campaigns, he said.
In his opinion as a scientist, he said, voluntary measures alone won’t be sufficient to prevent bad actors from misusing quantum technologies. “Learning from history, I believe that in the future we will need new law.”
Laflamme said an overarching message in the expert panel’s report is that government, industry and academic leaders all need to get involved immediately in developing, deploying and managing quantum technologies, “so that they will benefit and all Canadians will benefit.”