Ireland is well placed to be a Quantum Technology hub: techBREK event highlights

10th May 2024

Article by Paul Hearns, Blockchain Ireland

Ireland is well placed to be a Quantum Technology hub article

Talent availability and national initiatives have the potential to put Ireland at the forefront of the quantum technology wave..

Quantum technologies are developing at a rapid pace and have the potential to impact almost every area of computing, communications and online services in the future. That was one of the key takeaways from our recent quantum-focused techBREK event.

Classical Computing Issues

Quantum technologies (QT) extend beyond quantum computing (QC) in other areas such as quantum sensing and quantum communications, said Nicola Stokes, Chief Technologist – International Financial Services at IDA Ireland. Current use cases in quantum computing include in financial services, portfolio and risk optimisation, said Stokes.

While the financial services industry is heavily investing in quantum computing, she emphasised, it is still a nascent technology. However, its promise of speed and data protection for critical functions cannot be ignored. Stokes said that where complex optimisation jobs are required, “These kinds of problems don’t scale well in classical computing scenarios. That challenge could eventually be addressed by quantum computing.”

There is competitive advantage in being first mover in the space, Stokes said.

“In time, we will see many companies with a quantum strategy — any company that is data, digital and AI-intensive and has this requirement for secure data.”

Stokes introduced the concept of Q-Day: the expected time by which quantum computers will be powerful and stable enough to crack current encryption schemes. This concept would be revisited by several other speakers, with particular note for cybersecurity.

STEM Pipelines

Also highlighted was the relative landscapes of quantum technology investment. The European Union is second only to China in how much has been committed to quantum, according to a McKinsey report, however, the EU has a commanding lead in talent for quantum.

The EU has the highest number of quantum talent people, more than a third more than India, and more than double China. In this context, Ireland’s opportunity is that we have a very high proportion of STEM graduates, and particularly in the 20-29 cohort, reports Stokes. We are No.1 in Europe per capita for STEM graduates.

If you have the cohort of STEM graduates, Stokes said, then you have the talent base to upskill for quantum.

National Quantum Strategy

Stokes also said there is a sound base of support from government down, highlighting the 2023 publication of the national quantum strategy, Quantum 2030, which has the explicit aim for Ireland to become an internationally competitive hub for quantum technology by 2030. It is based on five pillars:

  • Pillar 1: Excellent fundamental and applied quantum research
  • Pillar 2: Top science and engineering talent
  • Pillar 3: National and international collaboration
  • Pillar 4: Innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic competitiveness
  • Pillar 5: Building awareness of quantum technologies and real world benefits

It also employs the quadruple helix of government, academia, industry and society, that has worked well in others areas, such as cloud computing. Stokes said the IDA is most interested in first four pillars and focused on partnerships.

“A lot of partnerships are taking place, no one can do this alone,” said Stokes. “That is a strength of the ecosystem here — it is open to partnership.”

Quantum Mandate

“What we are doing here is trying to get companies thinking about trying to build a quantum mandate.”

Stokes acknowledged that while operations are very small scale as yet, there are grants and supports to help get beyond the first steps, and onward. What IDA Ireland would like to see is that we are building a talent pipeline for the ecosystem so that when those opportunities come — and they will — that we are in a position to say we have a certain cohort of highly educated individuals who have expertise in this particular area, said Stokes.

quantum technologies article quote

Quantum Principles

Delving into the principles and technology of quantum computing, Ciaran Fennessy, SVP – Head of Strategy and Transformation for Global Funds Services Technology at Citi and adjunct lecturer in AI, went beyond the classic cat in the box analogy and illustrated the concept at the heart of quantum computing with a tossed coin.

Classic a computing with 1s and 0s, and characterised by Moore’s Law, has certain limitations, not just computationally, but also physically in its architecture. Quantum computing as proposed in 1981 was envisaged to get beyond these limitations using quantum mechanics’ superposition, said Fennessy.

“This is where a quantum system can exist simultaneously in multiple states until it is measured. That is the real leap, from both a thought and an actual physical perspective,” said Fennessy.

The coin when tossed and spinning in the air is essentially in a superposition of heads, tails and both simultaneously until it lands and is observed. This is used to great effect to carry out multiple, simultaneous calculations until a solution is arrived at. The 1 or 0 bit is replaced by the quantum qubit. A qubit’s ability to be in multiple states at once enables it to process vast amounts of information concurrently, increasing computing power.

However, Fennessy went on to say that quantum computing won’t be like AI, as it is a specific technology for specific use cases. The differentiator with quantum computing is its ability to enable large scale, complex computations more efficiently by multiple calculation, said Fennessy. Use cases will be those applications that feature vast amounts of data requiring complex calculations in a narrow window, such as portfolio optimisation.

Caffeine Dilemma

By way of illustration, Fennessy put up a picture of the much beloved caffeine molecule. He said that there were so many such molecules in the average cup of coffee that to model each atom, bond and subsequent interaction in classical computing was impossible.

Quantum computing can do this better, he said, and thus it has implications for areas such as drug discovery.

Fennessy acknowledge that there are still huge challenges, and said we are still working through the best underlying architectures to achieve effective quantum computing. While still at the very early stages, Fennessy said he was confident of significant developments for more effective machines.

Harnessing Fundamentals

While giving a short history of computation from the mechanics of the abacus, through the difference engine and into the beginnings of quantum computation, Steve Flinter, Distinguished Engineer (SVP) at Mastercard, said that the trend had been harness ever more fundamental properties of the universe. With this development, said Flinter, we are harnessing another, more fundamental property of the universe – quantum mechanics — to try and control it and do computation with it.

We tend to break QT down into three high level areas:

  • Quantum computation: using quantum devices to perform hard computational problems.
  • Quantum security: the impact of Shor’s Algorithm on our cryptography systems. This is essential to the security of payments – cryptography is what keeps all that safe.
  • Quantum communication: how can we use quantum properties to allow us to communicate securely from point to point.

Flinter broke down the quantum computers themselves into two broad groups.:

  • Quantum annealers: machines specifically designed to solve optimisation problems, with many possible solutions, but only one optimal.
  • Universal quantum computation (gate-based): IBM and others are exploring this. Using QCs to solve any problem that classical computing can, but to do it better over time.

Flinter characterised these developments by saying there are advantages and disadvantages for both types. Annealers are very specific, he said, while universal QC is broader, but practical technology is further away.

Cryptographic Impact

Returning to the concept of Q-Day, Flinter said the Mastercard team, which leads the company’s quantum research effort from its base in Dublin, are actively working with what are termed post-quantum algorithms.

We think Q-Day is still more than a decade or so out before we will have what we call cryptographically relevant quantum computers than can seriously attack cryptography, he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have 10 years to wait to start doing anything about it. We need to be working today to understand what crypto systems we are using in networks, our software, our devices, and which ones are potentially most vulnerable to cryptographic attack from quantum devices.”

Post-quantum algorithms have been developed over a number of years by NIST and other standards bodies, said Flinter, designed to be immune to attack by QCs, but it is going to take time to upgrade networks and systems to do that. That work is ongoing. Likening it to the Y2K issue, without a specific deadline, Flinter said it is a similar magnitude task.

Flinter also described quantum communication where the quantum phenomenon is employed to ensure that communications cannot be intercepted or eavesdropped upon.

If someone tries to listen in, said Flinter, the quantum signal collapses, and the person on the other end knows that someone is trying to listen and that it has been compromised.

Quantum Keys

“That has enormous implications from a security point of view.”

The application around that is primarily around an area known as quantum key distribution, Flinter said. We don’t think that quantum comms initially will be used to replace the internet or other such channels, but will be used in quantum key distribution.

In cryptography one of the issues is how do we get cryptographic keys securely to all the parties we want to communicate with. Quantum comms has the potential to address that, said Flinter. He also highlighted the Irish government initiative to establish a quantum communication network in Ireland, partly funded by the EU. Later in the Q&A, there was an update on its progress.

Education Development in Quantum

As highlighted earlier by Nicola Stokes, building a talent pipeline for the coming quantum age is critical to Ireland’s quantum ambitions.

Emil Dimitrov, Senior Computational Scientist for the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC), described how the Quantum Programming Foundations pathway courses, which will have an intake in September of 2024, were developed to address the need for business leaders and technologists to get a ground in fundamentals to allow them to further develop their knowledge.

Dimitrov said the course has five themes: introduction to QC and its potential; QC systems and architectures; core programming fundamentals; algorithms and use cases; QC software stacks. It allows three pathways of various modules for differing needs. It consists of recorded lectures, tutorials, and consultations, and has had two deliveries so far. Feedback has been excellent, said Dmitrov, where people were very happy with the course. He said there had been constructive suggestions for materials improvement and delivery.

Mindset Change

On moving to the discussion panel, the speakers were joined by Michael Dascal, Director Quantum Product Management at Fidelity Investments. Dascal is also a co-founder of DiviQ – Diversity in quantum computing organisation, which supports underrepresented or marginalised groups begin their careers in QC.

Dascal characterised the change in mindset necessary when thinking about QC. Taking inspiration from a Von Nuemann quote, Dascal said that with QC, it is not about bringing standard use cases to quantum and seeing if we can do it faster – we ask what this tech [QC] is going to allow us to do at a fundamental mathematical level and how does that apply.

He emphasised that they take a very ‘should’ versus ‘can’ approach, and are proud of the rigour they bring. He said it led them to narrow down to certain areas where they see an advantage and benefit from QC.

There was significant engagement from the audience for the panel. A show of hands revealed that around 15% of those present had already had some form of practical engagement with quantum technologies.

panel discussion at quantum techbrek
Panel speakers at techBREK quantum event – from left to right: Paul Hearns (Blockchain Ireland) – Moderator; Michael Dascal, Director Quantum Product Management, Fidelity Investments; Nicola Stokes, Chief Technologist – International Financial Services, IDA Ireland; Steve Flinter, Distinguished Engineer (SVP), Mastercard; Emil Dimitrov, Senior Computational Scientist, Irish Centre, High-End Computing (ICHEC); and Ciaran Fennessy, SVP – Head of Strategy and Transformation for Global Funds Services Technology, Citi

Quantum in Communications

One question addressed quantum communication. Steve Flinter had described quantum communication between satellites that would use techniques such as photonics or lasers. An audience member asked about wireless, such as 5G and beyond. Flinter explained that as these kinds of wireless communications, including Wi-Fi, relied on digital use of radio frequencies, there was not a quantum phenomenon to use. The example was cited of a Chinese experiment where its Micius satellite successfully established an ultra secure link using quantum entanglement between two ground stations separated by more than 1,000 kilometres.

Another question asked whether the mentioned post-quantum algorithms for cryptography were merely buying time or were fundamentally different. Mastercard’s Flinter confirmed that yes, they were fundamentally different, as they don’t rely on mathematical difficulty to achieve the effect.

They have yet to be battle tested, he continued, but a lot of evaluation has gone on. Downside is key length is much longer which might affect bandwidth, he said. Handshakes might be affected, and there are bandwidth and latency issues to consider.

There is now a need for a crypto-inventory to know where you are, said Flinter, what’s being used where and for what. This will reveal the scale and scope of a migration, allowing a risk-based approach, but it may be a decade plus exercise to migrate.

Harvest Now, Decrypt Later

This is an issue because of what was highlighted as the ‘harvest now, decrypt later’ issue. Nicola Stoke had said there were already fears that certain nation states may be harvesting sensitive, encrypted data to be stored and later decrypted for when QC has become capable of doing so.

Michael Dascal said the threat of ‘harvest now, decrypt later’ is one we all need to work under. The first set of new cryptography standards are due out later this summer, he confirmed. Dascal cited Michele Mosca, who said when thinking of when you need to prepare for this, considerations need to be given to the lifespan of the data, and the time to migration.

There will not be an overnight switchover, said Dascal. Moreover, because these are new algorithms, potentially undiscovered vulnerabilities might exist. The industry must build in crypto-agility, which he acknowledged, is a totally new approach. The migration time is non-trivial.

Quantum Ireland

The event concluded with mention of Quantum Ireland, a new industry body for the quantum technology sector. Nicola Stokes said the body grew organically, as clients in financial services were looking for something to have a representative voice.

Co-founder and current chair, Dascal added while the national strategy talks a lot about industry involvement, there was a gap between the strategy and its implementation. He said various parties decided to get together and see how to play a part in the national strategy, gathering stakeholders to help found an ecosystem to succeed.


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