A quantum leap in computing power
Drawing on a century of theoretical physics research, quantum computers, in contrast to conventional computers, use qubits instead of bits. Whereas the state of a bit can only be either 0 or 1, the general state of a qubit according to quantum mechanics can be a coherent superposition of both, allowing it to hold more information. The result is an immense leap in computing power. Calculations that would take months for today’s most complex computers can be solved by quantum computers in seconds.
This pioneering technology is still in its infancy, but it promises to revolutionise research and simulation in vital areas such as batteries and medicines, urban planning and climate models, as well as helping to create hack-proof communication channels.
Germany waking up to quantum potential
Despite being renowned for its technological prowess, Germany has been slow off the mark regarding quantum computers. While massive government and private investment in the USA and China reflect the importance of the field, Germany, until recently, did not have a single quantum computer and significant funding in the area was lacking. That is now changing. In 2020, the German government announced a €2 billion investment programme in quantum computing, supplementing a further €1 billion in EU funds.
“Quantum computing can play a [… ] key role in our endeavour to acquire technological and digital sovereignty,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said when the programme was launched. “We’re in the midst of a very intense competition, and Germany has the intention to have an important say.”
IBM and Germany’s first quantum computer
2021 saw the public unveiling of Germany’s first quantum computer, the result of a cooperation between the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and IBM. With 27 qubits, the IBM Quantum System One is currently the most powerful system anywhere in Europe. To tap its potential, complex quantum algorithms are being developed, and the plan is to make the computer available to large corporations, SMEs, start-ups and research institutions, giving them the chance to build expertise and test new potential applications and business models. The processed project and user data will remain in Germany at all times and the system is operated in accordance with German data protection law.
The need to create a quantum ecosystem
Given the pace of development and the scope of investment elsewhere, Germany knows that in the medium-term it must develop a first-class quantum computing ecosystem which pools and shares knowledge. This requires cooperation between science and business when it comes to research and applications, and the harnessing of Germany’s technological expertise to manufacture hardware components.
Progress is being made. Leading research institutions like the Max-Planck Institute, Helmholtz Association and Jülich Supercomputing Centre are creating quantum computer technologies and applications, while the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is developing a network of quantum computing competence centres to give universities, companies, and other users access to the technology.
In business, ten leading German corporations, including the BMW Group and Siemens, have jointly founded the Quantum Technology and Application Consortium (QUTAC). The consortium’s goal is to further develop the existing fundamentals of quantum computing into usable applications, particularly for the technology, chemical and pharmaceutical, insurance and automotive industries.
Chancellor Merkel stressed the importance of quantum computing in helping Germany and Europe acquire technological and digital sovereignty, and Germany plans to build its own first quantum computer within the next five years. But in a field this complex, European countries are not in a position to go it alone. Cooperation and EU investment are required.
Encouraging initiatives, such as the European Innovation Council’s Accelerator programme and the EU Flagship Quantum Technologies, have already been launched to promote quantum technologies in the Union. European research institutions are also forging exciting partnerships and pooling expertise and resources – for example, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luftund Raumfahrt; DLR) has partnered with Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) to explore how quantum computing could improve battery simulation models to aid future energy utilisation.
First step in a quantum leap
The USA and China remain the dominant forces in quantum computing. But Germany and Europe are determined to play a role. Germany’s recent progress has caught the attention of leading quantum technology players, with many setting up offices in Germany and others sure to follow.
Johannes Verst, CEO and founder of Munich’s Quantum Business Network (QBN), says, “We estimate that 70 percent of all foreign players with potential stakes in Germany’s quantum computing business have either recently opened an office in the country or are in the process of setting one up.”
It may be playing catch-up, but Germany, as Europe’s biggest economy and with an enviable tradition of technological excellence, is now very much part of the quantum computing race.