This post could have been named: My Stab at Contributing to a More Cohesive National Innovation Climate for All Things Quantum, Episode I.

Since that’s a bit on the long side, I’ll just stick to Quantum Bootcamp. It’s snappier, and also a pretty good description of what these last nine months or so have felt like, when I’ve been immersed in the universe of quantum technology to the point that I sometimes felt like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole.

Before going further, a bit of context: Sweden consistently performs well when countries are ranked for their ability to get innovative technologies out of the labs and onto the market. That’s great, but it tends to hide our shortcomings. The fact is we’re relatively weak in some very important verticals. Case in point: one team with a promising new approach to building fusion reactors, just made an announcement that implies they’re on their way to move to the UK. Obviously a huge opportunity loss.

Quantum tech is another area that stands out in terms of the gap between quality of research, and commercial implementation. The two fields are similar both in how capital-intensive they are, and in how great the potential impact could be if successfully brought to market.

Sweden has been lagging badly behind when it comes to quantum tech. Most of the funding has been provided by private players (*thank* you Wallenberg!) and there’s been no national strategy.

That’s why I was happy to see the Quantum Sweden Innovation Platform – QSIP – forming, and even happier to get to play a part in it. Since I knew very little about the quantum domain (my background is in software), I decided there was three things I needed to do in order to even start making a contribution. I needed to read up, to reach out, and run a simulation.

1. Reading up

How do you start approaching a field when you have absolutely no bearings? Reading is one obvious answer, but how do you even know what to read? I find that it matters what order you pick up reading material; if you come at the more demanding stuff too early, it’s bound to be counter-productive. I read the following books, in order of appearance:

  • Skönheten i kaos by Julia Ravanis
  • Explaining Humans by Camilla Pang (yes, it’s about physics, in a wonderful way)
  • Introducing Photonics by Brian Culshaw
  • The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder
  • Helgoland : Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution by Carlo Rovelli
  • Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
  • The Man Who Changed Everything : The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Basil Mahon
  • Fashion Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe by Roger Penrose
  • The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
  • Dance of the Photons : Einstein, Entanglement and Quantum Teleportation by Anton Zeilinger
  • Quantum : Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar
  • Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think, also by Richard Feynman
  • Quantum Computing from Colossus to Qubits : The History, Theory, and Application of a Revolutionary Science by John Gribbin
  • Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
  • The Strangest Man: The hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo
  • and Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything by Amanda Gefter, which I’m currently making my way through (it’s an absolute delight).

Where did this reading rampage get me? I stumbled on a couple of titles (Penrose, Culshaw, Cox & Forshaw), but mostly enjoyed myself immensely and learned a lot. I’ll never be more than a happy amateur, but even that can go a long way. If the science of quantum physics was a landscape, then I start seeing its contours in the lifting fog.

I’ve also come to understand where the science ends and the engineering begins.

Because as hard as it is to understand quantum physics, even to expert practitioners, the fundamentals were pretty much figured out during the first half of the 20th century; starting with Max Planck and reaching its conclusion with John Stewart Bell.

This doesn’t mean that scientists are done of course. The fact that the standard model is irreconcilable with general relativity remains one of science’s most elusive problems. It just means that the scientists figured out enough for the engineers to take the ball and run with it.

And ran they did; neither the laser nor the semiconductor could have been engineered without solid understanding of quantum physics.

2. Reaching out

I’m a trained journalist, so my knee-jerk reaction when faced with a new field is to reach out to the people who are experts. One thing I’ve learnt over the years, however, is that experts suffer from the curse of knowledge; the more they know, the harder it is for them to translate what they know into a format accessible to the rest of the world. (sometimes when it gets really bad, they even can’t comprehend other experts from adjacent fields, something I’ve written about previously).

In my experience, this seems to be a highly frustrating dilemma. Which probably explains why experts often make time to meet when a complete amateur such as myself reach out to them. It’s not that they’re flattered by the attention, it’s that there’s actually something in it for them; the opportunity to exercise their abstraction muscles, by means of having to produce straight forward answers to questions that are normally reserved for savvy peers.

All of this is to say: it’s easier than you might think to get air-time with genius scientists.

The hard part, actually, is to identify them. Quantum technology is a highly cross-disciplinary field, so the standard academic org-chart isn’t much help. You’ll find mathematicians working on post quantum cryptography while people in hardware security, at a whole different part of campus, develop attack vectors that pulverise their most sophisticated schemes. They’re locked in an arms-race, and they’re hardly even aware of each other.

Likewise you’ll find super-compute folks who are developing quantum machine learning algorithms, while the people just next door might be world leading in the field of classical machine learning, with no clue of what their neighbours are up to (and vice versa).

Even in the physics department, the most obvious place to look, some groups will be betting the farm on continuous variable, while the tribe at the other end of the very same corridor are going all in on discrete variable. Or the people who share one coffee machine are deep into quantum photonics, while the ones who gets their java in the other machine have figured out how to master a similar bag of tricks in the microwave regime.

And that’s not even counting the highest level separation of concern – that between quantum sensing, computing and communication; each of which offers such rich opportunities for specialisation and its ensuing turf wars.

So in conclusion: there’s no short-cut to finding the quantum people, they aren’t listed in any registries, there aren’t some administrator in the university’s sprawling administration, that could help you plot who’s who. You simply have to do the legwork yourself.

So. As much time as I spent reading up, I spent more on reaching out. No magic to it, I’d just start semi-randomly and keep going until I came across my first super connector, who would give me a list of new leads, each of whom would generate lists of their own. It meant talking to lots of people. Not all of them were relevant to my quantum quest, but they were all super interesting to talk to, so no risk of having “wasted time” (this is the lovely thing about operating in a university context).

What was my take-away after all these meetings? Perhaps surprisingly, the one thing I’d most often heard people say, was that they weren’t doing real quantum stuff. As in: “Sure I’m leveraging quantum effects, but the application as such [insert, for example: super resolution microscopy, free space optics or ultrafast electro-optic modulation] is straight-forward classical.”

In the famous words of Gertrude Stein, there seemed to be no there there.

After witnessing this pattern again and again, I came to realise that the technology these people developed were so far ahead of time, that the inventors seemed to feel a need to downplay their endeavour. It reminded of the early days in AI, when researchers toiled in obscurity for decades, stubbornly passionate but at the same time ever fearful of raising false expectations.

(Case in point: even when IBM had beaten Gary Kasparov in chess with its machine Deep Blue, an event that had been the holy grail of artificial intelligence, the corporate press release stressed that Deep Blue wasn’t real AI).

This brings us to the third and latest development; the quantum quest.

3. The simulation

Quantum people’s reluctance to be associated with quantum meant they generally weren’t inclined to consider the option of entrepreneurship. The potential to commercialise simply felt out of reach.

Which is understandable, but also problematic since it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I realised the full force of this dynamic when, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to hang out with the Canadian quantum community. Canada is really punching above its weight. The government put its foot down some twenty years ago and declared quantum a national priority, to the effect that there’s now a booming industry. Goes to show that William Gibson was right in observing that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

So to counter these hen-egg standoffs, we needed to nudge people into believing that the quantum future of Sweden is closer than it seems. We decided to do so by running a simulation.

Engineers run simulations all the time; it’s the go-to method for finding out what would happen under circumstances that are unrealistic to recreate in physical reality.

Simulations come in many shapes and forms. They often run inside computers, but not always. Think about astronauts practicing space walks under water, or getting familiar with high g-force in a centrifuge.

Entrepreneurship can be simulated in the form of a role-playing game.

That is to say: *I* thought it could.

Lucky for me, I found someone who bought into the idea. Like me, he’d grown up playing Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike me, he was a postdoc in quantum physics. The two of us set about drafting a “quest”. A quest, in role-playing parlance, is the script for a particular adventure.

Ours outlined a world eleven years into the future, where testbeds for quantum key distribution are established in metropolitan areas, and the bank sector is taking the lead in transitioning to quantum based (and thus “unhackable”) communication infrastructure.

Against this backdrop, a number of industry stakeholders (a startup, a scale-up, a venture capitalist, an established telecom operator) are called into a meeting with the minister of infrastructure. Everyone’s got their own agenda (as defined by us on “role cards”). They’ve got about an hour to arrive a common strategy that will serve the country as a whole.

Arguably somewhat mundane compared to fighting dragons, but our players weren’t your typical D&D-fanatics, either.

What they were, we realised as our venue filled up, was curious. Participants had come from all corners of our university, but there was also plenty of people from the industry. They were whip smart, too. If a UFO had abducted the people in attendance that day, there would have been a noticeable dip in the city’s average IQ.

You might think it’d be a lot to ask from this bunch to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and play a game with us, but you’d be surprised how willingly they did just that. After an opening panel (with four researchers at the very top of their fields who all happened to be women), things got buzzing. People who’d never met before quickly got deep into character and started strategising together. It was *fun*.

And that was half the battle; once you’ve had a few good laughs together everything seems so much easier.

The simulation itself also served its purpose. All of a sudden 2035 doesn’t seem so far out, and turning our hypothetical scenario into actual reality felt within reach.

Wrapping up : connecting the dots

I think we’ve come off to a promising start. I like the hyper-local nature of the work we’ve done so far, but also feel inspired by the fact that we’ve started connecting the nodes nationally. In fact, just a few hours from now I’ll talk shop with quantum people from various remote corners of this vast country. They’ve all started to feel like colleagues by now. As their faces light up on my screen, I’m reminded of what it must have been like back in the day when ARPA pulled together researchers from all over the US to create the Internet. Back then, too, things might not always have worked out according to plan, but when the goal was eventually realised, the prize proved to be transformative.