Long the domain of researchers in university physics labs, the exploding quantum computing industry needs to fast-track skills development outside of the laboratory to overcome its esoteric and mysterious image, the global head of IBM’s quantum-computing efforts has warned.

Initiatives such as the federal government’s recent $111m funding commitment may have underscored the importance of the sector, but without the skills needed to support the industry – projections suggest quantum will create 16,000 new Australian jobs by 2040 – it risks languishing in yet another high-tech skills gap.

“If we can’t create an ecosystem and get people to know how to use quantum, I see it being very hard for the technology to get to us and to become as distinct and important as classical computing was,” Jay Gambetta – an ex-pat Australian and IBM fellow who heads that company’s quantum computing efforts at its Thomas J Watson Research Center in the US – said as the company recently unveiled a 127-qubit quantum processor called Eagle.

With IBM aiming to pass the 1000-qubit mark by 2023, the race to add qubits has defined an industry that is working towards ‘quantum supremacy’ – a theoretical point where quantum computers outpace conventional computing, potentially driving revolutionary applications and threatening the security of today’s data encryption and cryptocurrency.

IBM’s milestone doubles the 54-qubit computer Google debuted last year, which was powerful enough for it to declare it had reached quantum supremacy. It is targeting one million qubits by 2030.

For all its promise, however, bringing quantum out of the lab will force the industry to build a skills-development pipeline stretching back through university into school years – a model that the cybersecurity industry has increasingly adopted as it fights to close its own skills gap – but Gambetta said that strong response to early IBM initiatives showed the interest was out there to be tapped.

Anchored under the IBM-supported Qiskit open-source quantum effort, initiatives like the two-week Qiskit Global Summer School 2021: Quantum Machine Learning had this year attracted over 5,000 participants and delivered coursework, lab and lecture materials to engage students interested in quantum careers.

The strong response to hackathons, camps, prizes, and various other ways Qiskit engages and works with the community “really says how many people are interested in actually learning about it,” Gambetta said, noting that in Australia the industry was gaining traction amongst increasingly quantum-focused universities like the universities of Melbourne, Sydney, and NSW.

Such partnerships had given students access to evolving quantum computers like the cloud-based IBM Quantum Services – which, Melbourne University senior lecturer in quantum computing and quantum information Dr Charles Hill said, “has really allowed us to drive a lot of good research” including critical work to generate large-scale quantum entanglement.

Building the business of quantum

Long a slow-burning research conceit, quantum’s rapid growth has been marked by a series of significant advancements and regional investments to capitalise upon them, such as the recent announcement that Sydney’s NSW Tech Central Quantum Terminal will house key Australian quantum scale-ups including Quantum Brilliance, Q-Ctrl, and the Sydney Quantum Academy – a four-way university partnership.

“Australia has a lot of talent, but I see the quantum computing ecosystem as much more than just the tool for doing the science,” Gambetta said, calling university partnerships “essential for trying to answer the question of how we actually get investment in the applications and the future of computing stack.”

“Succeeding in this new future is going to require both an investment in the hardware, but also investment in the applications and how quantum can even connect to classical computing and many other things.”

Many businesses have quantum on their radars – but with heavily-hyped quantum computing currently sitting at what Garter calls the ‘peak of inflated expectations’, VP analyst Chirag Dekate recently told attendees at the Gartner IT Symposium that it will likely be over 10 years before quantum actually reaches its ‘plateau of productivity’.

Current quantum techniques are improving but lingering challenges around managing high error rates mean that even within businesses, work to optimise problems for quantum “are really good ways to build skill sets to explore the landscape… [but] from a value delivery perspective, they might be a little bit limited.”

“Harnessing quantum computing requires a whole set of new skills,” he said, and IT executives “will be running into new terms, technologies and tools that teams will need to master… Quantum computing is unlike anything we have seen before.”

As quantum hardware continues to evolve, ongoing partnerships will help businesses and teaching institutions work more closely to ensure the quantum skills ecosystem grows in line with the rest of the industry.

“Getting more of these opportunities out is the only way we’re going to increase it,” Gambetta said. “Creating the next workforce is definitely one of our goals.”