What quantum technology means for Canada’s future

Canada is a global leader in the development of quantum technologies and is well positioned to secure its place in the emerging quantum industry.

Quantum technologies are new and emerging technologies based on the unique properties of quantum mechanics – the science that studies the physical properties of nature at the atomic and subatomic level.

In the future we will see how quantum technology will transform computing, communications, cryptography and much more. They will be incredibly powerful and offer capabilities beyond today’s technologies.

The potential impact of these technologies on Canada’s economy will be transformative: The National Research Council of Canada has identified quantum technology as a $142 billion opportunity that could employ 229,000 Canadians by 2040.

Canada could reap far-reaching economic and social benefits from the rapidly evolving quantum industry, but it must act now to secure them — before someone else delivers the first major quantum computer, which is likely to be sooner than expected.

Quantum technology is the future

Quantum computing is a rapidly evolving type of quantum technology that combines concepts from quantum physics with classical computation. The result is quantum computers that can do tasks that classical computers cannot.

While quantum computers will be revolutionary, they will also introduce new problems by breaking the public key cryptography that secures today’s Internet and corporate networks. Public key cryptography is a method of encrypting data using pairs of keys. Anyone with a public key can encrypt a message, but only those who have the matching private key can decrypt it.

The keys are generated by computers running complex mathematical problems that cannot be cracked by today’s most powerful computers, but can be cracked by quantum computers. Data intercepted and stored today is already vulnerable to this future threat.

A quantum chip mounted on a nanoposition
A quantum chip mounted on a nanoposition. Quantum computing chips serve as processors for quantum computers.
(photonic), Author provided (no reuse)

This offers Canada the opportunity to invest in new technologies to secure communications, ranging from “post-quantum” encryption algorithms to the distribution of quantum keys, a type of provably secure quantum encryption based on quantum mechanics.

To take advantage of long-distance quantum key distribution, we need to develop satellite-based quantum repeaters that work similarly to repeaters in today’s telecom fiber optic networks. They enable the transmission of quantum signals over long distances. Canadian researchers are well on their way to developing them.

If we don’t defend our cybersecurity infrastructure now, the advent of a quantum computer could be the information security equivalent of the atomic bomb: almost no information or computer systems would be secure against a future quantum attack. Canada must seize the opportunity to lead the world in building, deploying and exporting technology to enable the global quantum internet and protect itself.

preparation for the future

Truly predicting the impact of large quantum computers is just as difficult as predicting the changes that have followed the commercialization of semiconductor physics.

When the crown jewel of semiconductor microchip technology – transistors – were first commercialized, it was expected that they would be very helpful in the development of hearing aids. They drove a computing and communications revolution; Today we find the physics of semiconductors in everything from laptops and phones to cars and medical devices.

Once quantum physics is commercialized on a large scale, it will impact almost every field, industry and aspect of our lives in a similar way. Scientists and engineers will be able to solve all sorts of problems with quantum computing, including simulating and designing drug targets, making better batteries, and creating more efficient ways to produce green hydrogen and synthetic gas.

keep ahead

To maintain its leadership position, Canada must go beyond R&D and drive a quantum ecosystem that includes a strong talent pipeline, companies backed by supply chains and governments, and industry participation. There are a few things Canada can do to further this leadership:

Further funding of quantum research: Canada has more than a dozen quantum research institutes and labs, including my Silicon Quantum Technologies Lab at Simon Fraser University. The Canadian government has invested more than $1 billion in quantum research since 2005 and is likely to announce a national quantum strategy soon. Canada must continue to fund quantum research or risk losing its talent base and current competitive advantage.

Build our talent pipeline with more open immigration: Although quantum experts are being trained at every major university in Canada, the demand for them is three times the number of new graduates. Canada needs the kind of accelerated immigration programs that fueled the telecom boom of the 1990s.

Someone wearing a mask and goggles holding a computer microchip in front of their face
Transistors are one of the building blocks of modern electronic technology, including computer chips.
(Shutterstock)

Be our own best customers: Canadian companies are leaders, but they need support. Quantum Industry Canada has more than 30 member companies. Vancouver is home to the pioneering D-Wave and Photonic Inc., the company I founded to commercialize silicon quantum technologies. More than $650 million was invested in Canadian startups between 2001 and 2021. Per capita, this is far more than the $2.1 billion invested in US companies over the same period.

What early quantum companies need most are customers: early, large procurement contracts or DARPA-like moonshot contracts. Without these contracts, the entire Canadian quantum industry will slide into other jurisdictions that focus investment and procurement on domestic bidders, as is happening in the European Union and the US

Learning from the past

Canada has an opportunity to break out of its pattern of inventing transformative technologies, but not reaping the rewards. This is what happened with the invention of the transistor.

The first transistor patent was actually filed in Canada by Canadian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, 20 years before the Bell Labs demonstration. Canada was also one of the places where Alexander Graham Bell worked to develop and patent the phone.

Despite this, the transistor was commercialized in the United States, giving rise to the country’s $63 billion semiconductor industry. Bell marketed the phone through The Bell Telephone Company, which eventually became AT&T.

Canada is poised to make even greater contributions to quantum technology. Many existing technologies were invented here in Canada – including quantum cryptography, co-invented by Gilles Brassard, a professor at the University of Montreal. Rather than repeating its past mistakes, Canada should act now to ensure the success of the quantum technology industry.

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