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Communicating Quantum: The Morning Briefing

“Good morning all!

Please see below my morning briefing on articles related to quantum:”

Every day, at around 9am, I receive an email which starts with this message from my colleague, Nancy. Apart from the not unappreciated element of routine this ritual adds to my otherwise often unpredictable days, it is a useful overview of what’s going on in the industry for TFD’s quantum team.

Recently, I opened Nancy’s briefing and there were the usual suspects: a few articles talking about a new breakthrough in quantum technology research, a few articles talking about a promising quantum startup, a report from the World Economic Forum looking at the future applications of quantum and an article discussing a new landmark on the quantum investment landscape.

And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve received one of these every Monday to Friday for the last eight months…that’s one hundred and sixty five days…that’s roughly eight hundred articles’.

At the time of writing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, starring Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer, has probably recently arrived at a cinema near you. Every day, I receive requests from journalists for comment on topics with scary buzzwords like ‘hackable humans’, ‘quantum cyberhackers’ and my personal favourite, ‘the quantum winter is coming’.

So, we’ve got eight hundred articles, Game of Thrones inspired fear mongering and a Marvel film about an arthropodised human adventuring in the quantum realm.

It can feel like every development in quantum is a ‘breakthrough’, every experiment in the field is symptomatic of either quantum technology about to explode or to fail miserably, every article can lead you to believe that quantum will never happen, that it will happen tomorrow, that it will drastically improve the world and the lives of its inhabitants, or ruin them utterly, making our secrets and even our bodies vulnerable to cyberhackers. And now Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer are getting in on a slice of the quantum action too.

I’m no quantum physics expert. More Rudd than Richard Feynman, more Pfeiffer than Professor Planck. However, I think that the potential quantum technologies offer for improving our societies is genuinely very exciting. In addition to all those incredible applications in medicine and drug development and combating the global climate change issue, with my humanities hat on, I also think that the way the communications strategy is developing around this technology is fascinating.

TFD attended The Economist’s ‘Commercialising Quantum Global 2023’ event in May and Michael Cuthbert, Director of the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) said that “the industry is getting very good at talking to itself; it needs to learn how to talk outside of itself - to companies, the public, governments”.

While for a long time the technology felt too esoteric, the applications too obscure, to find its place in mainstream media, in recent years all this has changed. Quantum computing became a big hit and since October 2019, when Google announced quantum supremacy, there hasn’t been a single day when ‘quantum computer’ hasn’t been a significant internet search term, achieving at least 25% of the internet searches conducted on that fateful day in 2019. And if that wasn’t evidence enough of the extent to which quantum has well and truly hit the mainstream, then consider OpenAI’s hugely popular chatbot, ChatGPT’s first suggestion of what you might ask it: ‘Explain quantum computing in simple terms’.

Figure 1

Fig 1. Google Trends graph showing interest over time for the search term ‘quantum computer’. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means that there was not enough data for this term.

Quantum computing, like all disruptive and emerging technologies, is to a certain degree characterised by energetic, but at times misdirected, excitement that can lead to disappointment. To be sure, we absolutely should be excited about quantum computing. Its applications will range from optimised supply chains to fighting climate change to long life medicine.

But for now, quantum – specifically computing – is still in its relative infancy. Nevertheless, businesses, journalists and individuals want to see the applications of quantum computers in action, they want to see the financial impacts now. It is crucial to note the disconnect here between the media frenzy around quantum computing and the desire to see substantial ROI and commercialisation.

When people don’t see quantum impacting in error corrected, totally logical, million-qubit quantum computers, there is an assumption that quantum is falling short of its promised potential. But there is a false equivalence here. Firstly, quantum technologies are more than just computers and secondly, we will and indeed are seeing impacts – financial and otherwise – from quantum technologies, but not always and not necessarily from computers. It is this chasm between a focus on computing and a desire to see commercialised applications, which led to the stirrings of a ‘quantum winter’.

Now, I think we are entering a new phase where this industry which is “good at talking to itself” is improving at talking to those important external parties. It is getting better at busting myths, correcting misinformation, differentiating between short and long term possibilities and opening the doors of those echo chambers so they don’t feel quite so noisy.

In this new phase of communicating quantum, other quantum technologies, such as sensing, communications and cybersecurity are, rightly, getting more of the limelight. At TFD, we have the privilege of working with, learning from and meeting a wide range of companies in the ecosystem – some work with computing hardware and software, some with sensors, some with communications and cybersecurity. From a comms and PR perspective, it’s a positive indication of the maturation of the industry to see the media landscape, in its fragmented form, starting to listen and respond to the challenges and successes of the companies working with those other quantum technologies.

At the Economist Commercialising Quantum Global event, the last panel of the day consisted of representatives from Quantum Exponential, the UK’s largest quantum-only investment fund and accelerator; Quantopticon, a mother-daughter duo founded company developing software to optimise quantum devices; Quantum Dice who are working to protect all of our data by leveraging the unique properties of quantum systems; Aquark Technologies who are miniaturising quantum tech applications to make them accessible for a much wider audience in the real world; and finally, Cerca Magnetics, a spin-out from Nottingham University who make brain imaging devices based on quantum physics.

At the end of this brilliantly varied panel, Tom Grinyer, CEO of the Institute of Physics awarded Cerca Magnetics with the Quantum Exponential-sponsored qBIG prize for their work with quantum enabled brain imaging equipment to detect brain signals indicating epilepsy in children. In the short term, Cerca Magnetics has a huge opportunity to help people suffering with epilepsy and they have partnered with the charity Young Epilepsy, and clinicians at Great Ormond Street Hospital to work on scaling and deploying the technology. If that’s not a reason to get excited about what quantum might offer in the future, I don’t know what is.

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