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The Quantum Ecosystem and Its Future Workforce

There is no doubt, we are entering the second quantum revolution. Every week some exciting news about quantum technologies appears in the media. Nowadays, several countries worldwide have initiated a quantum program to develop this emerging market. However, this will require having a highly trained and skilled workforce. How can society be ready when the time comes?

The global quantum ecosystem

Major global economies are undertaking huge initiatives to promote and accelerate quantum technology research and development. Since the inception of its National Quantum Technologies Program in 2013, the UK has invested almost £ 1 B to foster the quantum technology market. The European Commission allocated one billion euros of funding over ten years to launch the European Quantum Flagship in 2018.

The same year, the United States House of Representatives passed The National Quantum Initiative Act. Numerous countries have followed in the last few years, and now almost all continents have countries with national quantum initiatives at different levels of commitment and investment. In terms of public funding, we have estimated it reaches around $ 22 B worldwide (see image below [1]). It is not a quantum race; it is a quantum ecosystem, full of collaborations and partnerships.

Globally, a growing number of start-ups and big tech companies are involved in building quantum computers using different physical architectures, including trapped ions or superconducting circuits. We have Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) computers already available in different forms, as well as numerous quantum computing cloud services where businesses and researchers can start using quantum computing algorithms and study whether there is an advantage of applying them to solve specific problems. Quantum computing algorithms can be applied in several sectors, such as material science, healthcare, and financial markets.

The quantum communications market will grow exponentially in the coming years. There are several initiatives creating QKD links between cities or countries as well as various projects focused on understanding how we could implement QKD services (ground based or using satellites) to protect data and deliver ultrasecure encryption keys. There are already commercially available products based on quantum sensing, providing specific solutions for various sectors such as in healthcare (e.g. medical imaging) or the construction sector.

Risks and Opportunities

In the quantum technologies ecosystem, there is a clear gap between research and industry, or in other words, between academia and business. There is an increasing number of startups founded by researchers who do not have enough experience or support to build a business. If we think of governments or funding agencies requirements, a clear business proposition is required for them so that they can fund the basic science to develop new products that can be commercialized. And the same applies to a more general audience who read the news and check the media, sometimes believing some unfounded hype.

You could argue this happens with all emerging technologies. What is different with quantum technologies? Quantum mechanics is a very appealing field that clearly generates excitement and mystical overtones when people hear it mentioned. Quantum physics and maths are perceived to be difficult by most students, and there is perhaps even a wider public perception that only ‘nerds’ can work with physics and maths. It is possible that Richard Feynman was right, and that “nobody really understands quantum mechanics”, making the gap between the different stakeholders in the community even wider.

In the field of quantum technologies, a global risk could be the unjust beneficial distribution of the technology. For example, imagine that just one country in the world (or a company) builds a very powerful quan-tum computer, able to solve problems of huge complexity. Should this computer be used to help society as a whole to treat global problems, such as climate change, resources distribution, or vaccine development, or should this computer be used for whatever the owner, being a nation or a company, wishes to use it for, say for military purposes? How could the use of these new technologies affect geopolitical relations? Who should be the owner of very secure and important data? These are just a few examples of the implications new quantum technologies could have on the planet.

The Quantum Workforce

Almost all continents already have startups in quantum technologies. It is indeed very interesting to see how these numbers grow every week. In the image below, the global distribution of startups per country is shown. Clearly the United States is the country with the largest number of quantum companies, followed by the United Kingdom and Canada. Additionally, there are several countries with just one or two companies. This is very interesting because it clearly shows that there is a global interest, opportunity, and expertise.

The distribution of companies per sector shows that most companies focus on quantum computing, being either hardware or software and applications, or both. There is also a big number of companies with a focus on quantum communications and security, and then a smaller number in sensing or consulting.

The global market size for quantum technologies is expected to grow to more than $ 16 B in the next ten years. We have estimated what this will mean in terms of job creation. In the image below, the exponential growth of jobs in quantum technologies is shown for the next two decades, with almost 600,000 new jobs in 2040. Quantum stakeholders and companies have already highlighted how difficult it is to find people with the right skills to fit the new positions being generated in the job market. This has been named the ‘skills shortage’ or ‘quantum bottleneck’ [2,3]. More important is the fact that, for this explosion of jobs in the next twenty years, we need to ensure that there will be enough people with the right skills to fill these positions.

Currently, the only trained people in quantum are highly academic, i.e. PhD level. There is a need to create a quantum workforce by introducing quantum concepts earlier in primary and secondary schools, and by having more opportunities such as quantum apprenticeships and quantum engineering programs. The only solution is to change before the change happens, not with the change.

There are several initiatives globally to raise the aware-ness of quantum technologies within the young population. However, it was not until recently that children learned how to program in school. At higher education levels, most students already thinking of a career in quantum technologies will probably study physics. However, what we know is that engineering degrees could also provide very good potential candidates for several positions in the market [4,5]. Furthermore, there are already several masters programs around the world with a focus on quantum engineering. The quantum workforce will not only consist of quantum physicists, but also computer scientists, engineers, technicians, and even people with a background in business, marketing, and sales.

More than half of the quantum companies are currently recruiting. At various career events and discussion panels, managers at quantum companies were asked what they find more valuable when hiring. Surprisingly enough, soft skills such as eagerness to learn, good communication skills, and teamwork are as important as any technical skill or degree.

Conclusion

There is an existing quantum ecosystem which is growing week by week. Are there hotspots, that is, places where this technology is going to be more fruitful than in others? Well, this will depend on how the products will be developed and commercialized in the coming years. It is true that different technologies have been developed at a different rate in different continents. For example, funded mainly by private investment from huge corporations, quantum computing has been established early in the US. However, we now see more companies trying to build quantum computers in Europe, Asia and Australia. China has been focusing on the development and deployment of quantum communications and is further ahead than the other countries. In Europe there is quantum sensor technology already available on the market. Specific technologies seem to be way ahead in some countries in comparison with others, but this could change dramatically in the next few years.

Are the market expectations close to reality or are they unrealistic? I guess we still need to wait to see how the market develops. Nobody could imagine that a pandemic was going to hit the whole world, leaving a lot of uncertainty in our society. Forecasts and research studies can be very close to reality but they are never exact. We are entering into the unknown, and this is another ingredient of why this field is so exciting, and we are working together as a community to build the new quantum future.

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[1] A. Venegas-Gomez and R. Manivannan: Overview on quantum initiatives worldwide, September 2020.

[2] The New York Times: The Next Tech Talent Shortage: Quantum Computing Researchers, October 2018.

[3] The Guardian: How can we compete with Google?: the battle to train quantum coders, January 2019.

[4] M .F. J. Fox, B. M. Zwickl, H. J. Lewandowski: Preparing for the quantum revolution – what is the role of higher education?, ArXiv:2006.16444, 2020.

[5] M. N. Amin: The Needs and Challenges of Workforce Development in Quantum Computing, American Society for Engineering Education, 2019.

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