The U.S., China and Europe are leading the development of this technology, which uses principles of quantum physics to perform calculations and information processing and has the potential to solve complex problems.
Presentation in March 2023 of the agreement to install a quantum computing center in San Sebastian, which will house the sixth IBM Quantum System One computer in the world. Image: EFE /Javier Etxezarreta
Quantum computing is one of the technological trends set to transform the world as we know it. The magnitude of its potential and its application, is yet to be discovered, but it is no secret that it will provide a major boost in areas such as finance, cybersecurity, logistics, cryptography and artificial intelligence, among others.
An example of this is the CUCO project, in which BBVA participates. It aims to apply the benefits of quantum computing in areas such as energy, finance, and defense. This project has been recognized as the first major quantum computing initiative in Spain.
Where does Spain stand in the quantum technology race?
In the quantum computing race in the old continent, Spain is betting on European sovereignty with three candidates to host quantum computers. Announcements have already been made that Barcelona, Galicia and the Basque Country will soon have one of the coveted quantum computers in their possession.
In October 2022, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center - Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS) was chosen to host one of the six computers of the European Union's new quantum computing network, with nodes in five other countries, with nodes in five other countries: Germany, Czech Republic, France, Italy and Poland. The EU's effort to achieve sovereignty in such a critical technology may bear its first fruits by the end of 2023, providing R&D services to the scientific community, industry, and the public sector.
“The aim is to facilitate experimentation with computing technology that, although still in the development phase, has many potential applications to solve problems related to the simulation of quantum systems more efficiently,” explains Alba Cervera Lierta, Senior Researcher at the BSC-CNS. The expert highlights applications in chemistry and materials science, and in complex mathematical optimization problems that arise in logistics, finance, cryptography, or machine learning. “The hybridization of quantum computers and supercomputers opens the door to new, more efficient and sophisticated supercomputing capabilities,” adds Cervera, who also coordinates the Quantum Spain project.
Launched in 2021 and scheduled to run until 2025 with a budget of €22 million, Quantum Spain is an initiative based at the BSC-CNS and involving universities and research centers, which seeks to boost the national quantum computing ecosystem. This project joins the 14 nodes distributed throughout the 14 autonomous communities that make up the infrastructure of the Spanish Supercomputing Network (RES), which for two decades has been offering supercomputing resources and services; a vital technology for many processes and industries, but different from quantum computing.
“Supercomputers are not quantum computers. They are two different paradigms,” qualifies Juan Luis Sánchez Toural, Academic Director of the Master in Quantum Computing at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR). “Quantum computing is a new technology that has the potential to solve complex problems, such as the management of natural resources, health crises or climate change, and it could do so in a more energy-efficient way. But it is still in its infancy.”
Another RES node, the Centro de Supercomputación de Galicia (CESGA), is also in the running for the first quantum computer in southern Europe. With an investment of €13.9 million and scheduled for September 15 of this year, this computer would enable the positioning of this center as a key player in the region. “The quantum computer will make the master's degree in quantum that we are going to have this year more attractive, and it will also serve for use cases with Galician industries, as well as to identify opportunities, in addition to attracting talent and retaining the talent we have,” details Lois Orosa, director of CESGA.
In addition to these computers financed with European public investment, there are public-private collaborations such as that of the Basque Government and IBM, which presented on March 24 the Basque Quantum alliance, a strategic partnership that has been developed with the three provincial councils. Basque Quantum will represent a direct investment of €120 million through 2028 in quantum-related initiatives, the most important of which is the creation of the IBM-Euskadi Quantum Center that will house the IBM Quantum System One. Vizcaya will lead the industrial and business field, with agreements with private companies that to date include BBVA, CIE Automotive, Inditex, Petronor-Repsol and soon Gestamp.
Quantum computing race
According to McKinsey & Company's June 2022 Quantum Technology Monitor report, the European Union has the highest concentration of quantum-related talent and, along with China, is the region that invests the most public funds. But the market is led by North America, home to 10 of the top 12 manufacturers, with the United States accounting for the largest investment in quantum computing. According to McKinsey & Company's April 2023 report, the economic projection of quantum computing by 2035 is estimated at between $620 billion and $1.27 trillion for 4 industries alone: chemicals, finance, life sciences and automotive.
“Quantum computing is one of the most competitive sectors in the world, comparable to the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union to conquer space in the 1960s. The first government to master this technology will have an advantage over the rest, as it will have the ability to better predict, simulate, and analyze a greater number of scenarios, whether it be the development of a new drug, a natural catastrophe, or the next financial crisis,” explains Professor Sánchez Toural.
Ahead of the Spanish centers, other institutions in European countries already have quantum computers. This is the case in the UK, where Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC) and Cambridge Quantum (CQ), renamed Quantinuum since its merger with Honeywell Quantum Solutions in 2021, are based, with focuses on superconducting circuits, as well as ‘software’ and quantum cybersecurity, respectively.
Within the European Union, in addition to the six countries selected by the EU, including Spain with the BSC-CNS, there are currently five quantum computers. Alpine Quantum Technologies (AQT), in Austria, which explores quantum computing using trapped ions. In France, PASQAL builds quantum processors based on neutral atoms. While in the Netherlands, the company QuTech, associated with the University of Delft, is also developing a quantum computer with support from Intel.
Also located in the European Union, IQM Quantum Computers, founded by Finnish universities, builds devices that use qubits implemented with superconducting circuits. Since 2019, it has been listed as a Finnish-German company after partnering with a startup based in Frankfurt (Germany) that makes quantum computing ‘software’ for finance, insurance, and energy. Something similar is happening with Quantum Brillance, an Australian-German venture capital-backed company providing diamond quantum accelerators, with partnerships in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia Pacific.
Several multinational companies have also landed on the continent. One such company is IBM, which has a quantum computer in Zurich (Switzerland), as has Google, which has also installed one at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the German National Research Council, just outside Stuttgart.
Other technology giants, such as Rigetti, Intel, Xanadu, and Alibaba; companies such as IonQ, Quantware and D-Wave; as well as the Chinese university of USTC or Japan's RIKEI, are also pursuing similar goals in countries such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, or Australia.
The global competition to master a transformative technology is still in its infancy. “Drawing a simile with ordinary computers, we are in the 40s and 50s of the 20th century, when the transistor did not yet exist,” says Professor Sánchez Toural. “The road to universal fault-tolerant quantum computing is as challenging as it is stimulating. It entails a huge research and funding effort until, in some laboratory, at some point in time, a scientific discovery finally opens the doors to this new paradigm and all the promised potential becomes a reality.”