Quantum Schmantum in Australia: The surprising depth of quantum technology research Downunder

Australia is a relatively small country in terms of research culture and influence on the world stage. The idealised self-image of Australians is that we “punch above our weight” and achieve great things with scarce resources - a romantic ideal which dates from when we were an isolated outpost of British colonial expansion. It can certainly be argued that Australian scientific contributions compare favourably to anything being done in other parts of the world. However, statistically speaking, we are still small compared to the scientific powerhouses of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and, in the last 20 years, China. Per capita we perform better but still lag behind the nordic countries. With a population of just over 24 million and an economy strongly reliant on primary industry (mining, agriculture etc.) the country’s scientific research tends to focus on “areas of critical mass”. Some areas of focus are understandable from a social and economic point of view (mining, agriculture, medical research). Others are more coincidental, for example astrophysics is particularly strong due to our Southern Hemisphere location and a strong history of support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Therefore when looking from an outside perspective, it may seem surprising that a major strength in Australian physics research is Quantum Technology.

To understand what I mean by strength, lets discuss the quantum technology research landscape in Australia, in 2017. The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centres of Excellence programme is considered the premiere funding vehicle for fundamental and applied research. This programme focuses on groups of 10-20 lead investigators who typically already have a tenured position within an Australian university. A position within a successful Centre of Excellence is hotly contested as it typically funds postdoctoral researchers, equipment, graduate student places, travel etc. for each of the lead researchers (or “Chief Investigators”). The focus is on big goals, collaborative and interdisciplinary research and a unified research effort, beyond the usual 1-5 person research teams funded through the “Discovery" programme - the standard ARC grant. The time period over which a Centre of Excellence is funded (7 years, with possible renewal) is also more than twice as long as a Discovery grant. More than anything else, a Centre of Excellence (CoE) gives stability to a scientist’s research.

What is surprising is how many of these Centres of Excellence are currently funded (or have been funded in the past), which have a Quantum Technology aspect. The CoE for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) is obviously both the most visible and best funded of these Centres. It has existed in a similar form since 1999 and in fact predates the Centre of Excellence scheme. As well as obtaining the highest level of ARC funding, it has additional government, industry and military funding - over $10 million AUD per year at last count. The vast majority of this investment is focused on the singular goal of designing and building a silicon based quantum computer. Given the collaborative nature of a CoE, this has resulted in an exceptionally high level of output in all areas of quantum computing that the Centre focuses on, both theory and experiment.

Although CQC2T gains most of the attention, there is an impressive depth of quantum technology research in other CoEs. The CoE for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) includes several lead investigators that are CQC2T alumni. However EQUS is focused on quantum technology more broadly. This includes quantum measurement, control, sensing and simulation. In short everything except quantum computing specifically. 

There are also a series of other CoEs with significant quantum physics research focused on technology and applications, but do not specifically badge themselves as quantum technology centres. These include:

  • the Centre for Ultrahigh Bandwidth devices for optical systems (CUDOS) which focuses on photonic engineering and optical devices for communication and other technology applications.
  • the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) which researches biomedical imaging applications and the control of light at the single photon level for medical imaging, diagnosis, and single cell manipulation.
  • the Centre for Future Low-energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) focusing on low-energy electronics using novel materials include two-dimensional films and topological insulators.
  • the Centre for Exciton Science (ACEx) researching the generation, manipulation and control of excitons in molecular and nanoscale materials for solar energy harvesting, lighting and security applications.

You may notice two things immediately from that list. One, it is necessary to have an acronym for your Centre - the more memorable the better. Two, you notice that the focus and selling point of these Centres is far from quantum computing and quantum technology in general. Yet, a closer look at the investigator list for each of these Centres will find many examples of former Centre for Quantum Computation members. 

Dig a little deeper and in the ARC fellowships for early-career, mid-career and senior researchers (DECRAFuture, Laureate Fellowships respectively) you will also find many examples of quantum technology research - often also Centre for Quantum Computation alumni (or other closely related groups). In the most recent round, notable examples include Dr. Marcus Doherty (ANU), Dr. Gerardo Paz-Silva (Griffith), Dr. Lachlan Rogers (Macquarie), Dr Christopher Ferrie (USyd), Dr. Fabio Costa (UQ), Dr. Peter Rohde (UTS), Prof. Andrew Greentree (RMIT). This again reflects the great strength of quantum technology research in Australia.

The fact that such a strong quantum technology research focus appears in many different guises is very much a result of the way the CoE programme functions and how physics research in Australia evolves to fit the funding model imposed upon it. Each lead investigator has their own interests and focus, but where these interests best fit in the CoE scheme varies as a function of time and as a function of the CoE groupings. We see young researchers who “grew up” in one Centre move on with their research interests, eventually rejoining or forming a new cluster that starts to accrete researchers until sufficient critical mass is achieved to become a funded CoE. This itself is not so surprising for such a collaborative, long term scheme. What is unusual is the large number of Australian investigators that currently could be referred to as working in the quantum technology space, yet they are not part of the two big quantum technology based Centres.

Beyond ARC funded schemes, there are other examples of large scale investment in research in the quantum computing space in Australia. Microsoft have for quite some time had a strong presence in quantum information and computing theory via their StationQ research team. Recently this effort has stepped up a gear and moved strongly into experimental realisations of quantum computing, incorporating Prof. David Reilly's lab at the University of Sydney (who is also a member of EQUS). Just down the road, the University of Technology Sydney has formed the UTS Centre for Quantum Software and Information using a combination of UTS and ARC funding. Although these efforts are still technically University based, it is indicative of the worldwide pivot towards commercialisation of quantum computing technology - by the university, government and private sectors.

The reason for this strong focus on quantum physics and quantum technology in Australia is due to a range of factors including historical precedent, governmental policy and playing to the Australian psyche. Since at least the 1980s, Australian and New Zealand have an exceptionally strong representation in the field of quantum optics. A standard collection of textbooks on quantum optics includes the names of many antipodien authors such as Walls, Gardiner, Carmichael, Bachor, Milburn and Wiseman. This is partly the influence of the great Dan Walls on New Zealand physics, and by extension Australia. However, it is also an artefact of a time when the fields of particle physics and condensed matter were dominated by the USA and USSR. Quantum optics was a “cheap and cheerful” science where real progress could be made with the limited resources available south of the equator.

With the advent of quantum computing in the mid 90s, the tools used in quantum optics were perfectly suited to this new and exciting field. For the first time in many decades, brand new concepts and results in quantum physics were appearing monthly, sometimes weekly. For the quantum optics specialists of New Zealand and Australia and their students, it was an easy jump into this new field. Twenty years later, it is no coincidence that we have an entire generation of established physicists with a sound knowledge of quantum technology. 

Add to this strong quantum technology research environment, several quirks of the Australian system. First, in Australia PhD students are essentially “free”. They are paid by government scholarships which cover both their fees and a stipend, and therefore don’t cost the doctoral supervisor’s grants anything other than conference travel or computer resources. The result of this funding arrangement is that the secret to getting high quality PhD students is not necessarily to have large grants, but to have interesting projects and a stimulating research culture - something that quantum computing and technology has had right from the start. Secondly, due to high cost of living and good working conditions, Australian postdoctoral positions are well paid and therefore expensive. This means that once a student completes their PhD, the number of local positions is very limited and going overseas for more experience is necessary if one wants to make a career as a physicist. The result is that many labs around the world have an Australian working in quantum technology. Even burgeoning commercial quantum computing efforts such as Google and IBM have key members who learned their trade in the Centre for Quantum Computation during its formative years.

These quirks have resulted in an effective system for training specialists in quantum technology and spreading them throughout the world. However, there are two more ingredients which have contributed to the exceptionally strong focus of Australian quantum physics research. One is that the Australian diaspora, by and large, are still trying to come home. A strong sense of national identity and in general excellent living conditions (and weather) make Australia an attractive proposition, even for those who weren’t born here. It is an effect also seen in Australian actors and business leaders. Even after spending many decades in either Europe or North America, they will often take a position back in Australia at some time before retirement. This means that academic positions at Australian Universities are increasingly hard fought rarities which attract a raft of exceptional candidates. Each newly formed Centre of Excellence or collaborative research group has no space for weak members. 

Of course, the return of highly trained expats applies to all branches of science and academia in general. What seems to be different about physics and quantum technology in Australia is that physicists are adaptable. Sitting somewhere between the intellectual safety-harness of formal logic in mathematics, and the application driven focus of engineering, chemistry and biology - physics in the 21st century is often about being able to tell a good story to explain your work’s significance. As this has become paramount to obtaining acceptance from our peers, it is a relatively straight-forward step to apply this to convincing grant agencies of the important of the research.

In addition, the last decade or so have seen an almost blind faith in publication metrics. Job applications include total citations, h-index and lists of high impact journal publications as a matter of course. The short-listing of job applicants by HR departments and Research & Innovation offices has removed the subtlety of judging research potential. Now, sheer numbers of high impact journal papers which gain many citations is the key to the elusive tenured position. This is a game for which quantum technology is perfectly suited. New tools, new applications and new concepts appear all the time. A junior researcher can make a name for herself with just a couple of key results that spark a new flurry of activity in the research community. Contrast this with the slow and steady incremental work in many other branches of physics and it is little wonder that since the turn of the century quantum technology research has had such a grip on physics.

This of course brings us to pontificating about the future. Can this expansion continue? Well, in terms of quantum computing, in 2017 we really are at the pointy end of the business. Quantum computing is now a research reality in commercially funded labs. It is just a matter of time before enough qubits are wired together to perform a calculation that cannot be simulated classically, even in its simplest form. Quantum cryptographic systems can be purchased from several companies worldwide. Quantum metrology and sensing is becoming more mainstream in the scientific community and will eventually cross over to become mundane in the commercial sector as well. However, the pace of discovery in academia is slowing. The problems are harder, the progress is more incremental. Having said that, the foundation of quantum physics knowledge that has been built in Australia will not disappear any time soon. Physicists are adaptable, always looking for unsolved problems to hit with shiny new hammers. Whether it is new problems or new tools, the career incentives continue to favour those who find them. The question is simply can the quantum technology community focus its energy on problems of enough significance to mankind to continue justifying tax-payer funding. Finding things to do is never difficult for an academic, finding worthwhile things to do is the challenge.

- Jared Cole, co-founder, h-bar quantum consultants

Postscript: Please email me if you believe I have left out a significant quantum technology research effort within Australia. Also, special thanks to A/Prof. Tom Stace for providing the inspiration for the title of this article.

Full disclosure: A/Prof. Jared Cole is currently a chief investigator within ACEx and an associate investigator within FLEET. His PhD was in quantum computing within the CoE for Quantum Computation Technology (the precursor to CQC2T) from 2003-2006.