‘This Is the Chance for Australia to Shine’: The Quantum-Sized Computing Opportunity Too Good to Miss

‘This Is the Chance for Australia to Shine’: The Quantum-Sized Computing Opportunity Too Good to Miss

Quantum computing promises to change the world. You’ll likely never have one on your desk, but one will likely be the reason in a decade or two’s time that many complex problems we face in 2023 will be solved. But things like quantum computers don’t just come to be, there’s years upon years of work that researchers around the globe have been doing and just as quick as an obstacle is tackled, another pops up. It’s a space Australia has the opportunity to not only participate in, but excel, and it’s companies like Q-CTRL that are helping forge our success.

Q-CTRL was founded in 2017. At its helm is Michael J. Biercuk, who spent many years as an academic scientist, pioneering a discipline called quantum control engineering. It’s related to another discipline, control engineering, which is the field that makes everything work (like keeping planes in the sky or robots upright).

Just like with every emerging industry, once it reaches a maturing point, there’s a need to consider the peripheral ‘stuff’ – such stuff, in Biercuk’s case, was thinking about the control problems within the field of quantum computing.

“The idea behind the company was that we have all this expertise in how to make quantum technology and do useful things, whether for computing or other applications, and it was time to bring that to this emerging industry,” Biercuk told Gizmodo Australia.

“I founded Q-CTRL with the objective of helping to make quantum technology useful by what we now refer to as building infrastructure software.”

Q-CTRL quantum computing
Professor Michael Biercuk. Image: Jessica Hromas/Q-CTRL

What exactly does Q-CTRL do?

Quantum computers are a totally new kind of computer, and being totally new technology, Biercuk is excited by its possibilities.

“But because it’s new, it has some really big problems and the biggest problem is that the hardware tends to break. So you try to do something useful with it and before you can get an answer out it just fails,” he said, likening this failure to say a calculator returning a bizarre set of numbers or your phone opening the wrong app every time you go to call someone.

Q-CTRL solves this problem, so this new kind of technology can be useful for everybody in the future.

“We didn’t want to be a ‘conventional quantum software company’ because quantum software, in that case, is software that’s supposed to run [as a program] on someone else’s computer and of course all the businesses that are doing that are waiting around for quantum computers to be available and good enough,” he explained.

“We took the view that there was an opportunity to help accelerate the entire field by delivering capability not only to the platform vendors … but also to end users who wanted to try to get higher value out of what they were testing on quantum computers.”

To say Q-CTRL is a deeply technical company is an understatement. But you don’t have to understand what Q-CTRL does to understand how important the company’s work is. Biercuk and his team make solutions that are used by effectively all of the hardware vendors out there: IBM, Rigetti, IonQ (etc, etc) – companies that are leading the quantum race. Of course, these companies all have their own expertise in the space, but they realise Q-CTRL is onto something incredible.

While hailing from the University of Sydney, Q-CTRL is not a spinout startup, but credit should go to the uni for allowing Biercuk’s work to leave the school’s walls and take shape as a fairly successful global name in the space.

No consumer-grade quantum computer (and that’s OK)

I asked Biercuk what the likelihood was of having a consumer-grade quantum computer in my home in the next decade. He said the answer to that was “decidedly no”, but that’s actually a general paradigm we’re going away from, anyway. The amount of compute power you keep in your home is going down, relative to what it used to be, anyway, with a lot of what you use sitting in the cloud, rather than in a home-style server.

“We see that quantum is evolving in the same way, that machines are available on the cloud right now, real quantum computers that you can log into. Now they’re still small and they’re what you would call experimental systems or research grades systems, but we think that they will become more broadly adopted – certainly within this decade, but even shorter than that by businesses,” he explained.

“And then what I expect will happen is that invisibly, in the background, they will start to have impacts on problems that consumers care about, but they won’t be the kind of thing that a consumer directly interacts with any more than consumers directly interact with a cloud service, they’re actually interacting with some SaaS platform that’s on top of it.”

Q-CTRL quantum computing
Quantum trap (left & right). Image: Q-CTRL

Australia’s opportunity

Back in 2017, I wrote a piece on the opportunity Australia had to ‘win the quantum race‘. It was based on the research coming out of our universities, and just how promising it was for the nation to solidify itself as a world leader. Six years later, I feel I’m echoing much the same. But, things are a little different now – we’ve now moved beyond just talking about it, researchers and companies like Q-CTRL are actually doing it.

Biercuk isn’t an Aussie, but he moved here to join the quantum research scene. There’s a lot going on here (from work out of the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, from companies like Microsoft, IBM and Google, and smaller companies, too) and he knew he wanted to be a part of Australia’s quantum computing movement. While quantum computing has become somewhat of a political football, there’s a reason.

“Quantum technology is really unusual for Australia; it is the one true opportunity that we have seen for Australia to sit at the big kid’s table internationally,” he told Gizmodo Australia. “We’re not asking to be included in the narrative, the international leaders are coming to us. It’s really important that that we think about it differently, because we’re in the position of strong negotiating leverage if we collectively act – that’s the really important thing.”

The likes of the U.S. government has been funding researchers in this space going back to the early 2000s. That’s not exactly something that has been going on here.

“If we just sit back and don’t invest in it, then it will fall apart as things have before. So, it’s really a chance for redemption of the early things that went wrong at the dawn of computing, in the 50s and 60s where Australia was a leader and then we let it go. This is a chance to make up for that because everybody wants what we have to sell,” Biercuk explained.

“This is the next Atlassian-style moment. That we can be a true global company. I’m not alone in it, but we happen to be the first in Australia and we’re an international leader in this respect.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia and there should not be a scarcity mindset. There should not be a view that we will maybe get a small seat at the table – this is the chance for Australia to shine.”

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