A major skills shortage in quantum computing could harm the UK economy unless universities recruit more students
Read my latest rather niche piece for The Guardian, which somehow made it on to the homepage.
While Solomons is fortunate to study on an interdisciplinary course, these are few and far between in the UK. “We are still overwhelmingly recruiting physicists,” says Paul Warburton. “We really need to massively increase the number of PhD students from outside the physics domain to really transform this sector.”
The second problem, according to Warburton, is competition with the US. “Anyone who graduates with a PhD in quantum technologies in this country is well sought after in the USA.” The risk of lucrative US companies poaching UK talent is considerable. “How can we compete with Google or D-Wave if it does get into an arms race?” says Palles-Dimmock. “They can chuck $300,000-$400,000 at people to make sure they have the engineers they want.”
There are parallels with the fast growth of AI. In 2015, Uber’s move to gut Carnegie Mellon University’s world-leading robotics lab of nearly all its staff (about 50 in total) to help it build autonomous cars showed what can happen when a shortage of engineers causes a bottleneck.
Worryingly, Doug Finke, managing editor at Quantum Computing Report, has spotted a similar pattern emerging in the quantum industry today. “The large expansion of quantum computing in the commercial space has encouraged a number of academics to leave academia and join a company, and this may create some shortages of professors to teach the next generation of students,” he says.
More needs to be done to significantly increase the flow of engineers. One way is through diversity: Bristol has just held its first women in quantum event with a view to increasing its number of female students above the current 20%.
Another option is to create different levels of quantum engineers. “A master’s degree or a four-year dedicated undergraduate degree could be the way to mass-produce engineers because industry players often don’t need a PhD-trained individual,” says Turner. “But I think you would be training more a kind of foot soldier than an industry leader.”
One potential roadblock could be growing threats to the free movement of ideas and people. “Nations seem to be starting to get a bit protective about what they’re doing,” says Prof John Morton, founding director of Quantum Motion. “[They] are often using concocted reasons of national security to justify retaining a commercial advantage for their own companies.”
Warburton says he has especially seen this in the US. This reinforces the need for the UK to train its own quantum engineers. “We can’t rely on getting our technology from other nations. We need to have our own quantum technology capability.”