Tatjana Curcic

Tatjana Curcic at CLEO 2018.

In a standing-room-only session on the first morning of the 2018 CLEO conference in San Jose, Calif. (USA), academic and industry researchers convened to look at the difficult path of moving promising quantum technologies from the research lab to actual technologies. And navigating that path to a quantum-enabled future, according to the session’s lead-off speaker, Tatjana Curcic of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), will require research labs to dig a lot deeper into the market potential of specific quantum technologies—and the specific use cases that drive that potential.

Dual perspective

In introducing the session, titled “Photonics-Enabled Technologies in Transition,” one of its organizers, Wilhelm Kaenders of Toptica Photonics, Germany, referred to the theme as “a topic that’s close to the hearts of the people at CLEO.” The session’s purpose, he said, was to bring members of a diverse community together to “get quantum technology into an industrial perspective, a user perspective.”

Curcic, who kicked off the session, provided an interesting combination of the basic-research and applied viewpoints. While she started on quantum research at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) “near the beginning” in the 1990s, she recently took a year to help start up an applied-research organization devoted to quantum technology in Canada, Quantum Valley Ideas Laboratories. That dual perspective has put her in a good position to look at the challenges—and opportunities—for bringing quantum technologies from the lab to commercial applications.

The Valley of Death, revisited

While noting that society has done “a very good job” of supporting basic research in quantum, enabling some “spectacular scientific advances” in recent years—and that it’s vital to keep that research strongly funded—taking the next step will require comparable attention to navigating the commercial transition, according to Curcic. Among the main challenges is the so-called Valley of Death—the gap in funding that occurs in the period after prototype-technology development underwritten by basic-research funding, but when the technology is still too early in its evolution, and too risky, for industry to “jump in with resources.”

Beyond funding, Curcic pointed to a number of other potential hurdles in moving promising quantum technology to commercialization. One is developing the supply chains that can provide underlying classical technologies sufficient to enable quantum devices. “The power of quantum derives from using quantum optics and quantum states,” she said, “and these are very sensitive to noise.”

Thus building quantum technologies imposes very stringent requirements, such as highly compact, ultrastable lasers and low-noise electronics, that the market may not be ready to provide. And it’s “an open question,” according to Curcic, as to whether it should be government funders or industry that support development of these technologies—and, if it’s industry, how to create the incentives to do so.

Finding markets

Curcic also mentioned the workforce issues that may stand in the way of getting quantum technologies off the ground. Most of the work thus far has been done by research physicists, she points out; what’s needed for commercialization are quantum engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals who may be in short supply.

Above all, Curcic stressed the importance of what she called “market-finding activities.” “This is an area that has not gotten enough attention,” Curcic said. “Even if you demonstrate an amazing sensor in the lab, there are questions about who’s actually going to use it, how you engineer a practical package,” and a variety of other variables that will ultimately dictate the technology’s success or failure in the market. Thus basic reasearchers in quantum “need to dig deeper into researching the use cases” that will determine whether their pet technologies can indeed support new markets, and how. “And we need risk analysis,” she said.

As an example of these challenges, Curcic alluded at various points of the talk to the chip-scale atomic clock (CSAC)—a technology that took decades to develop and that cost upwards of US$100 million in government, national-lab and industry investment. Developing the laser alone for CSAC took eleven years, and required some technological components to be built from the ground up. But it ultimately did find commercial applications, many of them in the oil industry.

“A lot going on”

While Curcic was forthright about the challenges ahead for commercializing specific quantum technology’s, she was far from pessimistic about quantum’s future. She noted the recent increase in funding of quantum initiatives, including reports of multi-billion-dollar Chinese investments, the European Union’s €1 billion Quantum Flagship project, and the U.K.’s well-established government-industry partnership. And, she noted, the U.S. drive for a National Quantum Initiative, proposed only late last year, is “really getting some traction,” including an action plan published in April 2018. “There’s a lot going on,” Curcic said.

Among the near-term commercial opportunities, Curcic says “we’re talking about quantum sensors, mostly.” She pointed to a number of emerging technologies that quantum sensors could help support, and that thus point to their market prospects. One of the biggest issues in the emerging area of 5G communications, for example, is “test and measurement”—a natural opening for exploring what quantum can offer in that market. And she suggested that a big focus of market-finding activity should be the Industrial Internet of Things—and the “fourth industrial revolution” vision of highly automated factories driven by machine vision and artificial intelligence.

“A big part of that [Industry 4.0 vision] is sensors and actuators,” Curcic noted. “Is that an opportunity for quantum sensors? That could be a market-finding opportunity, and a good place to look.”

Vast opportunities, but education needed

Curcic also cited potential market openings for quantum simulators, which have made significant strides in the past few years, with systems involving more than 50 quantum bits (qubits) emerging just last fall. These systems, she points out, could have value not just for simulating specific physical systems, but for solving certain kinds of hard optimization and network-mathematics problems.

“The opportunities for quantum are truly vast,” she said. “It will impact many, many areas.” But part of the onus, she stressed, will be on researchers themselves, to give a better view of just what quantum is, and what it can do.

“People don’t understand quantum,” Curcic said. “It’s shrouded in mystique, and it covers vast areas. We as a research community could do a better job at articulating the importance and relevance of quantum beyond generalizations.”