The Commonwealth is planning to build a quantum computer. Image: Shutterstock
EXCLUSIVE: The Commonwealth government is looking to buy a quantum computing system through a secret procurement process that is rumoured to favour a US-based company, leaving Australia’s quantum sector annoyed by the apparent snub.
Sources told Information Age the government has been looking to buy its first quantum computer from PsiQuantum, a California-based firm with a stated mission to “build and deploy the world’s first useful quantum computer”.
The Department of Industry and Science did not respond to Information Age’s request for comment.
Australia has a wealth of local expertise in quantum technologies and has, for decades, been a world leader in the nascent field’s research and development.
When Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic took office last year, he showed a public desire to take advantage of local talents, knowledge, and manufacturing capabilities to “make Australia the quantum capital of the globe”.
Indeed, Husic’s department led the development of Australia’s first quantum strategy.
But the government’s apparent move to go overseas for what one insider described as Australia’s “biggest ever investment in quantum”, has been seen by many in the industry as a slap in the face.
Husic’s office did not respond to Information Age’s request for comment.
One industry source, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned why there wasn’t an open tender process and said they would have liked the opportunity to form a consortium of Australian companies to apply.
While they didn’t disagree in principle with the idea of the Commonwealth buying a quantum computer, the quantum expert said a government decision to buy technology from a US-based company could negatively impact how the local industry is perceived by international investors and buyers.
The government has not previously stated an intention to buy a quantum computer. In this year’s budget the Department of Industry and Science added around $20 million for a quantum commercialistation centre and $40 million for the Critical Technologies Challenges Program.
Internationally, government-funded quantum computing projects have proved expensive. The Finnish government last month committed $116 million (EU70 million) to scale up its 20 qubit system while Germany announced in May that it will pour around $5 billion (EU3 billion) to build a 100 qubit system by 2026.
Simon Devitt, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and member of the government’s National Quantum Advisory Committee, was willing to publicly state that he thinks the government buying as-yet-unproven technology is “a ludicrous waste of money” that would be better spent on funding to shore up local academic research.
“These systems are often extremely expensive and their value is questionable at the very least,” he told Information Age.
“They do not provide any kind of commercial utility for HPC [high-performance computing], and the utility for developing quantum algorithms or in education is essentially non-existent.”
Devitt could not speak to anything discussed in the National Quantum Advisory Committee.
Quantum computers are probabilistic and can theoretically solve problems that would take a classical computer thousands of years to compute.
They have potential applications in areas like cryptography, finance, and pharmaceutical development, although quantum advantage – the ability for one of these systems to outperform classical supercomputers – has yet to be proven outside niche experimental settings.
Companies around the world are exploring different ways to create and maintain systems of sufficiently large, error-corrected quantum bits (qubits).
PsiQuantum is pursuing photonic quantum computing technology which involves storing and processing information using individual quanta of light.
The company claims its chips can be rigorously tested using industrial-scale facilities at room temperature which gives them an edge over technologies that must remain cryogenically cooled for longer parts of the testing phase.
Photonic quantum computing is not room temperature since photon detectors still need to be cooled to near absolute zero.
Individual quantum photonic chips may have fewer qubits than competing technologies, but using light as a foundation may allow a cluster of connected chips to pass quantum information between one another via fibre optic cables and scale-up systems with existing technology.
PsiQuantum has an Australian link through its CEO and co-founder Professor Jeremy O’Brien who studied in Queensland and Western Australia and completed his PhD with the University of New South Wales.
The company is partnered with US semiconductor firm GlobalFoundries that produces PsiQuantum’s photonic chip wafers at an industrial scale.
PsiQuantum did not respond to Information Age’s request for comment.