Europe places a billion-euro bet on quantum computing

The technology offers 'spectacular possibilities,' one researcher says

The European Commission plans to invest a billion euros in quantum computing as part of a larger initiative to strengthen Europe's competitiveness in the digital economy.

The investment, about US $1.1 billion, will be made through an effort called Quantum Flagship, akin to existing "flagship" projects in the European Union focused on graphene and on the human brain. It is expected to be partly funded by EU research and innovation programs.

The aim is "to place Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, bringing transformative advances to science, industry and society," said Nathalie Vandystadt, an EC spokesperson.

Scheduled to launch in 2018, the quantum computing project will be described in more detail at the Quantum Europe Conference in Amsterdam next month.

Quantum computing is widely anticipated for its potential to deliver huge performance gains. Whereas today’s computers rely on transistors to process bits of information in the form of binary 0s or 1s, quantum computing relies on atomic-scale qubits that can be simultaneously 0 and 1 -- a state known as a superposition that's far more efficient.

Realizing it in a working system, however, remains a challenge.

The first quantum revolution entailed "understanding and applying physical laws of the microscopic realm," resulting in groundbreaking technologies such as the transistor and laser, explains an EC staff working document on quantum technologies. Now, "our growing ability to manipulate quantum effects in customized systems and materials is paving the way for a second quantum revolution," the document explains. "Its industrial and societal impact is likely to be again radically transformative."

The Quantum Flagship was announced as part of a European Cloud Initiative that will give Europe's 1.7 million researchers and 70 million science and technology professionals a virtual environment to store, manage, analyze and re-use a big amount of research data. The EU says it has already supported quantum technologies for almost 20 years with funding investments totaling about 550 million euros.

A “Quantum Manifesto” published earlier this year by a team of EU researchers identified the need for a large-scale initiative to move forward in the field.

Harry Buhrman, executive director of Dutch quantum research center QuSoft, helped to initiate the new investment proposal.

"It is essential that we do not only invest in the development of the quantum computer, but also in quantum algorithms and software," Buhrman said. "At the moment, nobody really understands how to apply the spectacular possibilities of quantum hardware. Large-scale research is necessary, and the Quantum Flagship enables this.”

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