INTERVIEW // Flavien Vottero, study director at Xerfi and author of the study The Quantum Computing Revolution, sheds some light on the structuring of the global quantum ecosystem.
While Google, IBM, and the Chinese researchers behind Zuchongzhi claim quantum supremacy in return, this computer revolution is attracting more and more investors. So far in 2021, start-ups in the sector have raised around 900 million euros worldwide, more than four times the amount raised in 2020, according to the Xerfi Institute. The global market for quantum computing is currently estimated at around 120 million euros.
In France, this new holy grail of data processing, which is supposed to be able to solve particularly complex problems with more variables in less time than with the data processing we know today, is the subject of a 1.8 billion euro plan announced at the beginning of 2021. also occupies a significant place in the France 2030 plan announced by Emmanuel Macron in October 2021. But what is it and where are we in its development? Who are the main players that make up the market? Flavien Vottero, Director of Studies at Xerfi, gives us some answers.
FLAVIEN VOTTERO – It’s a new way to use supercomputers, based on qubits and works differently than traditional data processing, which codes in 0 and 1, with the possibility of having several exponential factors. There are different technologies for making these qubits: superconductors, trapped ions, neutral atoms, electron spin … all based on quantum physics. The interest is that these various technological innovations make it possible to speed up the calculations, but that is not the main interest. It is in exponential searches with multifactorial criteria that quantum finds an advantage over traditional data processing.
Until about a year ago, we were still in the R&D phase in laboratories. In France, there are mainly public laboratories such as Inria; in the United States, it is both public and private research. Today we enter the framework for the development of demonstrators. This means that the tenders launched by Inria in France relate to developments, e.g. by Quandela, of solutions to demonstrate technological viability. That will be in 2022. Then from 2025 we will have demonstrators of economic viability compared to traditional IT. The industrialization of real quantum computers is for 2028-2030, to roll out on the scale of traditional supercomputers. All this for the purpose of quantum function without noise, without correction, that is, the quantity of dreams.
In the relationship between China and the United States, we need to distinguish between quantum computation and economic opportunities, where we are talking about a deep tech which provides a competitive advantage to the entire economy of a country, and an entire segment related rather to cybersecurity, transfers and security of data and information. It is this element that primarily interests the military: the use of quantum in networks. We are therefore talking about the use of codes and the possibility of breaking them. The military is investing heavily in this, especially on Darpa’s side [Agence pour les projets de recherche avancée de défense, NDLR] in USA. There is a third application of quantum technologies: quantum sensors. Especially in the military area, to be able to replace GPS systems and optimize eg positioning of submarines in a slightly hidden way.
I think it will remain segmented. In Europe, there is a desire not to be dependent on IBM technologies. Today, announcements of quantum domination should be put into perspective. These are very accurate calculations, so it’s not really quantum domination. Then this “supremacy” is achieved with computers that have huge failure rates, which prevents this technology from being industrializable for the time being. At IBM, research is evolving in the absolute quantum, without error. They have a planned roadmap until 2025. The longer it takes, the more they will say that their quantum computer is better. Qubits are increased so that computer capacity is better, there is no doubt. But today, the stability of the systems is too insufficient for us to compare their quantum computer with the most powerful supercomputer found in Japan, which itself is on stringent calculations with a much higher success rate.
To correct these errors, the noise from qubits, an entire system of algorithms is developed. Therefore, two markets will be created. IBM or Google will continue to invest massively in the development of the perfect quantum computer, which will not be released until 2028. Then French players like Atos or Quandela are developing operational and industrializable technologies for quantum computers with noise. Simplified, it’s a bit like in telecommunications, where you have the “real” 5G and the “fake” 5G. So it is not absolutely quantum, but it can have benefits, such as being operational and providing concrete solutions in the field of energy or finance in particular. Atos is positioned on this type of technology, also HPE. Therefore, we can not say that IBM or Google is winning the day, because two markets are being created.
It should be noted that we are still in the industrial demonstration phase. Superconductors are certainly the technology used by IBM and Google. It is highly developed but also has its drawbacks. To work, you must have an absolute zero, so all cooling is necessary, which makes the installations huge and therefore difficult to use or install. Other research is therefore under development, as on the side of Pasqual, which is more on trapped neutral atoms. IONQ is about captured ions, which have advantages and disadvantages, and which means that there will be a settlement of the market on these different types of technologies. It’s not necessarily the most advanced technology today, like superconductors. It is possible that other technologies will benefit in the next few years and shuffle the cards. Amazon, for example, which was far behind, revived using Alice & Bob’s cat qubit technology.
An entire ecosystem is being created. We may be a little behind with quantum software, but we have real integration throughout the sector, whether it is component development, cooling with Air Liquide, installation with Atos and computer development with other start-ups. And above all, there is a real demand and commitment from user companies. EDF, Airbus, Total are already major investors in supercomputers. This is an advantage compared to other technologies such as artificial intelligence where the private demand is not so developed. In this French sector, there is not only public investment to finance R&D or start-ups. We have demand side financing. Is this French ecosystem viable internationally? There will always be Chinese protectionism so that side can be forgotten. There is also strong protectionism on the American side, so it is difficult to see French start-ups develop in this market. Especially since we in the US have both large corporations that have a monopolistic position and start-ups that benefit from stratospheric fundraising. But are these funds not too important? We must not forget that we are still in the R&D phase, that the main costs of these start-ups, which have a pipeline of research over five years is the gray matter, the researchers’ funding.
For me, there is an effect buzzword in USA. Fundraising is far too high in relation to the reality of the market and the potential return on investment. This can be negative for the sector. In France, funding is relatively more structured. For example, Quantonation, an investment fund that has real know-how and technical expertise in the field, has recently raised funds [closing de plus de 20 millions d’euros en mars 2021, NDLR] to finance start-ups. Today that is enough. We must be able to scale up, and above all it must go through these funds that specialize in deep tech.