UK.gov shovels £15m into training new quantum engineers

Boffins: Mmm, generally a good idea

Stanford concept graphic indicating quantum electron interference holograms

The government is flinging £15m at training "the next generation" of quantum engineers through investment in "skills hubs".

Implicitly suggesting the existence of a current generation of quantum engineers, the Department of BIS hopes the investment will support the building of "innovative new products like 6G smartphones."

As the minister responsible, Business Secretary Vince Cable offered his canned thoughts on the spending splurge "From cameras that can see through smoke to cracking down on internet fraud, quantum technologies are taking innovation to a whole new level and offer an unparalleled opportunity to shape the next generation of high-tech products that will improve our day-to-day lives."

Dr Rachel Oliver of Cambridge's Materials Science department gave a gentle laugh at this when phoned by The Reg: "Well I think we already have cameras that can see though smoke, but these investments could definitely do a lot to bring those technologies already quite close to market further along."

She added, in deference to the aeons-old human search for knowledge: "Of course, the most exciting stuff for the research community is not the low-hanging fruit."

The funding will come via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), who will shortly be issuing a call for proposals. In creating a number of "skills hubs" across the UK, the EPSRC hopes to forge partnerships with industry to deliver training and career development programmes for PhD students.

"Quantum skills will allow us to bring game-changing advantages to future timing, sensing and navigation capabilities, in a sector that could be worth more than £1bn to the UK economy. That is why we are investing up to £15m to train specialists with the right entrepreneurial and business skills to ensure we have the talent to keep us ahead of growing international competition.” said universities, science and cities minister Greg Clark.

Dr Oliver described these comments as quite apposite, noting that highly-skilled manufacturing is where Britain can take the lead over less-skilled competition abroad.

"We're doing well at training people in the kind of skills necessary for invention,” she said, "but training up the part of our workforce which will allow people to make things,that maybe have never been made before, is very important."

According to its Strategic Plan for 2015, the exploitation of quantum technologies has been given equal priority by the Research Council alongside establishing energy security, developing a low carbon future, advancing regenerative medicine, designing and building future cities, maintaining cyber security, and growing manufacturing.

Ross Anderson, head of cryptography at Cambridge University, took a sceptical line, telling us that there were "a number of issues at different levels" with recent quantum-focused proposals.

He added: "There are a lot of doubts that certain quantum technologies could ever work. We don't need it, we have working cryptography now," listing plenty of reasons to be sceptical about quantum navigation as well.

"What is really needed," continued Dr Anderson, "is a form of peer-reviewed spending distribution among academics."

When asked if the government's focus on economic return could be matched by an academic-controlled system, Anderson said that such a focus was "bogus", as advances made by scientists might take twenty years before appearing in the market.

The investment will be made all the same, however, and the announcement comes alongside the publication of a national strategy to stimulate growth in quantum technologies in the UK.

Launched by the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, the strategy intends to highlight "the billion-pound potential" for the UK as a world leader in this field. ®

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